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How NDSU Is a 21st-Century Research Leader

Dean Bresciani

Photo by Hillary Ehlen

Since its founding in 1890 as the North Dakota Agricultural College as a research land-grant institution, NDSU has become one of the top-100 ranked overall research universities in the nation due to scholarly productivity in agriculture as well as many other fields. In fact, the National Science Foundation ranks NDSU as the leading research university in its five-state region. 

While its mission has substantially increased beyond the original scope of just agriculture, it still exists to serve the citizens of North Dakota through research and education. It has done that by expanding its research capacities beyond just agriculture, although that still remains their leading source of research. As the region becomes more known for ag tech, NDSU is playing a vital role in ensuring the research for tomorrow’s technology is down in our backyard. And NDSU President Dean Bresciani hopes to keep the university front and center with its agricultural mission. 

Q: There are some bills going through the legislature that would fund some research. Why is that important for a vibrant economy?

A: Our state historically benefited and suffered by being a bimodal economy based on two commodities. Any economist will tell you that’s a very fragile economic base. We just experienced that four years ago when both those commodity groups tanked in terms of price. For North Dakota to be a contemporary and successful state, we’ve got to diversify the economy. 

One of the places we can do it, ironically, that complements one of those commodity industries would be the UAS zone, smart farming zone and things like that. Those are applications that can serve, in a sense, as a pilot for more applied use of UAS technologies and related technologies, whether it’s GPS or anything down to microelectronics. 

We have a chance to diversify an economy with an emerging industry that complements existing industries. It’s kind of a perfect alignment of the stars. We’re very fortunate to have two research universities that can be a backbone to that … and combine the power of two universities that would support what would otherwise perhaps be too grand of a vision and make it something that’s really achievable. 

Q: With automation comes jobs being replaced, how does higher education come in to educate the workforce for tomorrow’s jobs?

A: One of the things that we read about in contemporary and scholarly literature all the time is most of the jobs of the future don’t even exist. When we hear about job replacement, there’s a certain irony to have that conversation in a state with 30,000 vacant jobs. First off, nobody’s going to be put off the job and left homeless on the streets of Fargo. We’re also creating a new knowledge that creates the new businesses that create new jobs. I suspect a more realistic problem is finding the people to fill the jobs. 

“Our test at the end of the day is how successful are the citizens we serve. We’re not pursuing research for the sake of research. We’re pursuing research that changes people’s lives.”

Dean Bresciani

Q: There’s a lot of discussion over higher education’s role in education for the future of jobs. Make the case for why a research university is still essential to maintain a strong economy.

A: In spite of what the media and some pundits say that you don’t need college anymore and you can do everything online, virtually every study of employer satisfaction with graduates is not that they’re lacking in the technical expertise that you can argue that they can or can’t get online. They’re lacking the critical thinking skills, communication skills and group work skills that you can’t replace through other mechanisms other than traditional higher education. 

What we know nationally is that both in percentages and raw numbers, more people are pursuing higher education than ever before in American history. While the media might lead you to believe that colleges and universities are dying and are a thing of the past, interestingly enough, consumer behavior is suggesting something very different. Employer behavior is also suggesting something very different. Employers want people with college degrees. It’s the first cut in any search process that I’m aware of. Now whether that’s a two-year, four-year or graduate degree, I don’t mean it has to be any one of those specifically but what we know is that a college education has more value and more people are pursuing it than ever before in history.

I take the position: is college worth it? It’s never been worth it more than it is now and obligatory than it is now. 

Q: How often is NDSU talking to the ag tech and ag industry about what’s happening in the classroom?

A: Constantly. That’s the whole notion of agricultural extension and agricultural research. Because we’re an applied science field, we have to be responsive to our consumers who are the farmers and ranchers and not just in North Dakota but this region and the nation. 

If we’re not in touch with our producers and our consumers on an international basis, we fail very quickly. That is core and central to what we do as a research university. Ag research is being in constant day to day communication with the people who are going to grow the crops and the people who are going to harvest the crops … and the consumers we’re selling the crops to. 

Q: The general public doesn’t know about the leading experts you have on the faculty. Talk about some of those leading experts you have on staff.

A: A great example is that we have a researcher who is studying wheat diseases that won’t be in the United States for five to six more years. Those diseases are already very visible in Africa. Why she’s studying in Africa is that she has to have the solution to those diseases before they get to the U.S. half a decade from now because our industry can’t afford the loss of productivity when that particular disease comes to the United States. It will come to the United States so we have to be prepared for that with a solution. 

Q: Why is now the right time to do this?

A: I hate to over utilize the analogy of a perfect alignment of the stars. We have an industry that needs it. We have an emerging statewide focus and priority on a technological solution, particularly, and most visibly through UAS and one of the national test sites that we’ve already established. We have business leader support for the initiative and things it’s trying to accomplish. I think sometimes, we get too wrapped up in the Grand Sky part and forget that it’s just a tool for getting us down the road to a level of discoveries and applied utilization of technology that doesn’t exist right now. 

Frankly, we have a governor and legislature who understand that this is a huge opportunity for our state and we’re uniquely positioned to pursue this opportunity. We’re one of the seven national test sites for UAS systems. We have an ability to move this initiative forward faster and we have a reason and need to because of the agricultural application. We have a capacity to because of UAS use at NDSU and research at UND as well as the microelectronics research that’s being done in this area. In fact, NDSU has been ahead on this topic well in advance of the national test bed being established. NDSU has faculty who, for years, have already been applying this technology, which is why Microsoft came to NDSU to establish the first large scale “smart farm” in the nation. We are the perfect storm but we’ve got competitors so we have to take this and run with it otherwise we might miss the opportunity and it might not ever exist again. 

Q: What do you want to say to this audience about Grand Farm?

A: Our test at the end of the day is how successful are the citizens we serve. We’re not pursuing research for the sake of research. We’re pursuing research that changes people’s lives. When it comes to agriculture, it’s a real easy measuring stick. We know exactly whom we need to be serving and if our farmers and ranchers of this state are being successful, we’ve done our job. If we’re not being successful, they haven’t. We know that on a year to year, month-to-month and, often time, day-to-day basis because all we have to do is walk out the door and see what’s happening in our state agriculturally. 

World Leading Research
A good example of how important NDSU is to the ag industry is to look at Neil Gudmestad, a University Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology who’s recognized as the world’s foremost potato expert. He is NDSU’s first fully funded endowed chair, which means Gudmestad’s position and research is funded permanently through that endowment. What’s most impressive is that $6.3 million were raised from private industry to fund this endowment. The potato industry decided that Gudmestad’s research work is crucial to their work and they put their money where their mouth is. 

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