On the block

The Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center is on the president's chopping block, but the scientists at the North Dakota laboratory complex are not letting it affect their research.

The Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center is on the president's chopping block, but the scientists at the North Dakota laboratory complex are not letting it affect their research.

The center, funded primarily through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, employs 15 senior scientists and about 120 support workers. According to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., many of its functions -- and budget dollars -- would be split between two other USDA Agricultural Research Services offices in Beltsville, Md., and Davis, Calif.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson is urging farmers to support efforts to keep the research center in North Dakota. Dorgan, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee -- which writes the USDA budget, remains optimistic.

"I don't think it's going to be closed," he says. "The president has made a lot of recommendations that Congress won't accept."

He cites multiple reasons for the center to remain open.


"There are a lot of good jobs in the center," he says. "It's the only one in an urban area, and it has a history of very important work."

What if?

Dr. Jerry Combs, director of the center, doubts there will be an final decision before July.

"I don't think anyone expects any clarity to occur until at least mid- to late summer," he says. The budget "has to go through the ag appropriations committee then appropriations (committees) in both Congress and the House. It may even be the end of the year or early next year."

There are 55 federal employees at the center, Combs says. Should the final decision ultimately be to close the center, Combs says "the plan would be to move the federal employees. They will have jobs offered at Beltsville and Davis."

The remaining workers, who are contract employees, would not move. "Their contracts would be terminated," Combs says.

Until a decision is made, employees there keep an upbeat, if not altogether cheerful attitude.

"It's part of the process," public relations specialist Brenda Ling says. "We are federal employees, and we do support the budget. There's really not much we can do about it. But the mood is good."


The center also might have to interrupt ongoing research, depending upon the timing.

"If this were done with enough lead time, we could bring the projects to conclusion," Combs says. "Some are easier to terminate than others. We have long-term studies with people and have an ethical obligation to those subjects."

30 years of research

The center began as the idea of North Dakota Sen. Milton Young, who was chairing the Senate appropriations committee in the early 1960s. He'd invited Eugene Cornatzer, who had founded the Department of Biochemistry in the newly reorganized University of North Dakota School of Medicine, to his home in Larimore, N.D., to discuss nutrition research, Combs says.

"Young invited him to his home to talk about nutrition," he says. "The two of them worked together, and Young ordered a congressional study of the status of human nutrition research in the USDA."

He submitted that report to Congress.

"By all accounts, it was lacking in 1966," Combs says. "The report recommended increasing the number of scientists and the creation of three regional centers."

Each would be built near a medical school, with one each in the north-central, southeastern and southwestern United States.


The Grand Forks center was the first. Construction began in 1969 on land adjacent to UND, provided by the state of North Dakota, and was completed in September 1970. But scientists were at work there even before then, conducting research as a field station to the Vitamins and Minerals Laboratory of the ARS Human Nutrition Division in Beltsville.

"Originally, it was trailers -- one for studying animals and one for studying people," Combs says. "The theme at the time was trace elements research. The argument was that we didn't know enough about micro-nutrient research."

In 1972, the research complex was established as a free-standing center, no longer subsidiary to the Beltsville center, he says. It was now the Human Nutrition Research Laboratory of the ARS North Central Region.

"It became the premium center for trace elements in the world, and has done some of the best work in the area of assessing body composition," he says.

In 1976, the laboratory inaugurated an active clinical nutrition research program. A year later, it was designated the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center.

The center shifted in a new direction in 2002, beginning with the hiring of Combs as the new director.

He had come from Ithaca, N.Y., after 27 years with the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. He served as the director of graduate studies for the field of nutrition at the graduate school and as a coordinator of the Food Systems for Improved Health Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"They brought me in and directed me to move into areas directly connected to public health," Combs says.


Research at the center now focuses on what Combs terms the three pillars: obesity prevention, healthy foods and mineral metabolism.

"Healthy foods is really about filling the information gaps," he says.

The center is working to provide the kind of research information necessary to develop already widely consumed foods for their health value.

"Our approach here is to identify the legitimate connections to health and the scientific questions that have to be answered," he says. "We are the only one of the six human nutrition centers to do this, except at (University of California) Davis. But they don't produce the staple foods."

Partnering with agriculture

At the heart of all of the research is food, and Combs realizes that a part of understanding foods must include a strong relationship with those who produce it.

"It is on our agenda to improve it, but it has been very good," he says.

Over the years, the center has cultivated strong working relationships with several commodity associations, all for purposes of advancing understanding of the relationship between food production and health. Many projects have been funded through grants from these organizations.


One of its current research projects is looking into the specific connection between consuming beef and the human body's absorption of calcium. They'd already shown that beef promotes calcium usage, contrary to previous claims that beef is unhealthy to eat.

"This is the second (research project) we've done with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association," he says. "We're testing the hypothesis that it promotes calcium absorption, trying to determine whether it's a positive (effect) of the meat as opposed to a negative (effect) of amino acids."

He dismisses the idea that there would be any risk to the integrity of the information published about these projects.

"These (commodity groups) are people with integrity, too," he says. "We're all after the truth. We're scientists and we are also the USDA -- we dare not abandon objectivity. I expect absolute integrity of our scientists."

He also has been impressed with the quality of the reviews that the commodity groups have given to their research publications.

"I see these relationships as a really strong asset for us," he says. "One of the ways is by funding projects, but also by providing a realty check for us."

Strong performance

He mentions the center's last external review, which are required every seven years in USDA.


"We had a very prestigious panel of internationally renowned scientists," Combs says. "They had a 90-minute conversation with our collaborators and stakeholders."

Combs didn't attend so they could all speak openly and without reservation.

"It was one of the best reviews ever," he says. "They pointed out that one of the strengths was building relationships with the commodity groups here. That doesn't happen unless people know you and what you're about and can see your direction."

He also recognizes the need for well-planned, productive research. Some research projects just don't have the same potential for benefit as others. At the research center, it becomes a matter of looking before you leap.

"It's a measure-twice-cut-once problem," he says. "Sometimes we need to resist jumping in but identify the goals you can achieve to attract proposals from academia and government."

Whether the center will remain here is unknown. But the center's director is optimistic and looks forward to enhancing the connection between agriculture and human nutrition research.

"We will be building continued relationships," he says. "We're concerned about public health and we need agriculture to be vigorous to produce foods that are healthy. It's a means to and end and it puts us on the same page, understanding trends and shaping them in an altruistic manner."

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