Two recent stories about research in Iowa produced opposite reactions. One gave me a sense of pride and hope; the other, disappointment and concern. 


First, the good news.


A California startup with operations in Ames is exploring a new method for delivering nitrogen to plants. If successful, it could pay huge dividends to Iowa farmers and the state’s soil, which has been deteriorating since the 1950s, when agronomists discovered the yield-boosting properties of chemically produced nitrogen fertilizers.


The problem with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers is that over time they make it more difficult for soil to hold water and other nutrients, resulting in increased flooding and runoff of valuable nutrients. 


The Des Moines Register’s Tyler Jett wrote about Berkeley-based Pivot Bio’s potential breakthrough. 


“Pivot Bio has offered a solution: billions of miniscule, gene-edited microbes that cling to a plant’s roots, pull nitrogen from the air and convert the nutrient to a form the crop can absorb,” Jett wrote.


“The company’s executives say the product allows farmers to cut back on the amount of synthetic fertilizer they apply to a field without losing yield,” he added.  


If it works, the product could be world-changing. 


With backing from Bill Gates, among others, Jett wrote, Pivot Bio is “perhaps the hottest product in ag innovation next to automated tractors.”


“Established fertilizer players like Nutrien Ltd. and Bayer AG are [also] researching microbial options,” he added.  


Pivot Bio’s concept has built-in attractions for farmers because it could significantly boost bottom lines by reducing the amount of costly commercial fertilizer now used.


The product should also please environmentalists because it would significantly reduce the need to use chemically produced nitrogen fertilizers, which are blamed for contributing to global warming and producing “dead zones” where rivers discharge into coastal seas. Also, synthetic fertilizers are now blamed for causing long-term damage to agricultural soils. 


One indication of how significant the microbial fertilizer industry is becoming is that investors last year raised $1 billion for Pivot Bio and other startups, Jett wrote. 


Although investors expect a huge payoff from those investments, their payback is far from guaranteed. So far, Jett reported, marketing promotions are running ahead of research proving the efficacy of the micros. 


Part of the difficulty is finding trustworthy data because there is already an overabundance of nitrogen fertilizer in most farm fields. That makes it difficult for researchers to determine how much nitrogen absorption is coming from the soil and how much is entering plants through gene-edited microbes.


But the outlook, for now at least, is good.


That’s more than you can say about prospects for maintaining Iowa’s reputation as a research center. 


You’ll notice the company featured in the Des Moines Register is based in California. 


Pivot Bio came here to test its product in Iowa soil in conjunction with Iowa State University, but the brainpower behind the business is in California.


That appears to be a growing problem, according to a recent story in the Cedar Rapids Gazette by education writer Vanessa Miller.


Miller wrote that Iowa’s top two universities continue to lose ground in U.S. News and World Report’s annual “Best Global Universities Rankings,” which focus on research activities.


The University of Iowa this year fell six places to No. 180, and is down 27 places from its 2018 ranking. 


Iowa State dropped 26 places to No. 263, a fall of 59 places since 2018. ISU’s slide occurred “just months after becoming one of only five institutions ever to withdraw from the esteemed Association of American Universities,” Miller wrote.


This year was the ninth global ranking by U.S. News and World Report, which listed 2,000 institutions from 95 countries, an increase of 250 institutions from a year ago.  


Despite ISU’s lower overall score, the Ames school had two top 50 subject rankings, for agricultural sciences (31) and plant and animal sciences (32). The school also ranked 71st in biotechnology and applied microbiology and 79th in food science and technology. 


Iowa’s top subject rankings were neuroscience (99), microbiology (109), endocrinology and metabolism (110), radiology, nuclear medicine and medical imaging (111) and clinical medicine (112).