Businesses must continuously change and adapt to ongoing changes in the many forces that affect their business. Long-term, successful businesses must adopt new technologies that enhance the productivity of their business and reduce its costs. New products must also be developed as consumer preferences change. In response to the need for constant change and adaptation to new conditions, many large corporations staff internal research, development, and marketing departments with PhD researchers, who are expected to continuously develop new techniques, products, and markets.

While aquaculture worldwide includes large companies such as Marine Harvest ASA, Charoen Pokphand Foods (CP Foods), AquaChile, and others, the majority of aquaculture farms worldwide, including in the developed world, are small businesses. For example, Subasinghe et al. (2012) estimated that 70–80% of aquaculture farmers worldwide are small scale. In the USA, 86% of aquaculture businesses have annual sales of less than $500,000 (USDA-NASS 2014), which classifies them as small-scale businesses, according to the US Small Business Administration.

Economic returns to research that leads to innovations can be quite high. In agriculture, median internal rates of return to successful innovations through research and development have been estimated to be approximately 44%, based on reviews of more than 1800 published estimates (Alston et al. 2000; Evenson 2002; Fuglie and Heisey 2007). More specific to aquaculture, Love et al. (2017) estimated a 37-fold return on investment in aquaculture research over the previous 15 years from US federal grant funding. While estimates of the return to research and development vary widely and are subject to differing assumptions and estimation methodologies, it is clear that the investment in new production technologies, systems, and products results in substantial benefits to farmers and consumers. Otherwise, larger corporations would not make such investments.

However, the small-scale, family farms that constitute the vast majority of aquaculture businesses worldwide do not have the time and rarely have the expertise or facilities to conduct their own research. In the USA, the land-grant university system and the National Sea Grant College Program were developed to provide the research and development support needed to advance food production on family farms across the country. Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits and contributions to the economy and to local communities that have resulted from public funding for agricultural research at land-grant universities. One of the fundamental premises of the US Department of Agriculture and the accompanying state-matching funds has been that research efforts have addressed the needs of farmers in each state and responded to key problems. A second key contributing factor was the integration of extension personnel and programs with researchers in the larger context of solving problems of farmer stakeholders. Research advances that are not adopted by farmers because they use unrealistic assumptions, lack proven results on a commercial scale, or are not economically feasible do not contribute to economic and social benefits. Extension personnel skilled in the development of effective extension programs that identify key problems and who then design appropriate combinations of activities that provide necessary information, including results of on-farm trials that demonstrate feasibility, are essential for the timely transfer of technologies to farmers. Equally important are the communication pathways by which extension personnel provide input into research programs to direct research efforts to those problems likeliest to result in the greatest economic and social benefits.

A previous editorial in the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society called for researchers to target the needs of aquaculture farmers in designing their research programs (Engle 2017). However, researchers need funding to do so. Public sources of funding are relatively more available for research and extension programs in some countries than in others. In the USA, Love et al. (2017) documented more than $1 billion (value adjusted for inflation) in research funding in aquaculture from 1990 to 2015. The European Maritime and Fisheries Fund allocation for aquaculture was €1.2 billion in 2016 (European Commission 2016). In China, substantial funding has been allocated in recent years for aquaculture research.

Such public funding is essential for continued growth of aquaculture production to meet the growing world demand for food. However, the investment in aquaculture will be effective only in terms of increased food production and positive economic and social effects if the research is targeted toward critical industry problems. In fact, while basic research is often needed for breakthroughs that trigger major technological leaps, aquaculture farmers must overcome their immediate day-to-day problems to survive. There is a strong need for those who make decisions on priorities for aquaculture research funding to not lose sight of the importance of addressing current problems of aquaculture farmers. Too great an emphasis on innovation or novelty in funding decisions can lead to ignoring existing industries and their unsolved problems to seek more glamorous systems and species that may never become economically viable. Thus, it is critical for public funding programs for aquaculture to develop portfolios that include a mix of short- and immediate-term problems that limit farm production and income of existing aquaculture farmers. Shell (1983) suggested that most research efforts (ca. 75%) should seek solutions to immediate problems of aquaculture farmers, with 20% of funds targeting problems expected to arise in the medium term of 3–5 years, and only 5% of research efforts directed toward basic problems with no immediate application.

Global resources have been shown to be sufficient to meet future demand for seafood production (Gentry et al. 2017), but continued investment in research and extension around the world will be needed to do so. It seems likely that research and development efforts within the context of large corporate structures will continue, given the need for companies to continue to seek a competitive edge through improved productivity and marketing. However, effective publicly funded research and extension programs have the potential for even greater impacts on society through sustaining the very large numbers of family aquaculture farming businesses by solving their most immediate and pressing problems. The Journal of the World Aquaculture Society is committed to its ongoing efforts to publish results of research that continues to contribute to the growth and development of aquaculture worldwide

Literature Cited