Rhododendron Research and the Role of the ARS
Chairman, Research Foundation
Princeton, New Jersey
The Research Foundation of the American Rhododendron Society was founded in 1975 at the annual ARS meeting in Seattle, thus formalizing the ARS' prior support of research on rhododendron and azalea problems and issues. In 1970, an ARS Research Committee was established which had no funding and basically reported on research performed by others. For many of the early years of the Research Committee, Dr. August Kehr was its chairman and champion. Prior to 1975 there were some research efforts supported by Seed Exchange profits, but without a formal funding mechanism, the Research Committee's efforts to sponsor research were limited.
Judson Brooks, Alfred Martin, Franklin West, Dr. Kehr and others were driving forces behind the establishment of a non profit Research Foundation of the American Rhododendron Society. At the 1975 Seattle annual meeting a total of $8,800 was raised in cash and pledges and the Research Foundation was on its way. Incorporation as a not for profit foundation meant that donations were potentially tax exempt and the Research Foundation Endowment Fund would serve as a way to fund ARS research activities. All donations are placed in the endowment, the principal of which will never be touched. All research expenditures are made from the earnings of the principal.
The Research Foundation Board of Trustees are ARS members appointed for three-year terms by the ARS president. The ARS Research Committee, currently headed by Mark Widrlechner, Ph.D., reviews proposals prior to the annual meeting, makes recommendations to the Foundation as to which should be funded, and depending upon the Endowment Fund's earnings, the trustees approves all or part of the recommendations.
Progress and Successes
The Research Foundation's Endowment Fund has grown from that initial $8,800 to over $170,000 today and in recent years has increased at a rate of between $5,000 and $10,000 per year from contributions of individual members, local ARS chapters and the national ARS. Although this progress is impressive, the volatility in investment returns over the past three to four years has allowed us to allocate only approximately $12,000 for distribution this year, which is a decline from some of the prior years. It is clear from our recent experience that we need to increase the growth of the Research Foundation's Endowment Fund at a higher rate to insure that we can attract quality proposals from the scientific community.
Most government, university and corporate funding for plant research concentrates on food crops, and relatively little is allocated to ornamentals such as rhododendrons and azaleas. The intent of the Research Foundation has been not to fund complete solutions to problems, since it will never have the funding to do that, but to point the way with "seed" money and demonstrate an interest by the ARS. This can attract additional funding from other sources, and provide investigations with direction to areas which are of unique interest to the "rhodophile."
The combined efforts of the Research Committee and Research Foundation have helped produce publications, international scientific rhododendron symposiums, seed collections, identification of diseases and some of the initial work on tissue culture techniques as it relates to rhododendrons. The results of funded projects are subsequently published in the ARS Journal. The Research Foundation continues to provide extraordinary benefits to the ARS at bargain rates and has propelled the ARS into the role of a significant contributor to rhododendron knowledge beyond just the casual observational lore that we all possess about our favorite genus.
In an article written about the rhododendron Research Foundation in the mid 1980s, Dr. Kehr defined rhododendron research as "problem solving." If we accept that definition, then there will be a never ending need for the Research Foundation. Because of our interest in the genus we are often on the cutting edge of problem identification. For example, in recent years, a new so-called powdery mildew has appeared in the Northwest and also probably in the East as well. Exact identification of the pathogens is necessary for control. Proposals investigating the problem were reviewed and two projects are now underway investigating the nature of this disease.
There are numerous needs for other research studies on pests, diseases and cultural practices. Petal blight which is now appearing in the Northwest and the continuing problem of the lacewing fly in the East and South are two which readily come to mind. Much interest has also been expressed about the advantages of grafting and the beneficial effects of specific rootstocks. Genetic studies, inducing polyploidy and future bio-tech possibilities are ripe research subjects which merit attention from the Foundation - and the list goes on. Without the integrated support of the ARS membership, the Research Committee and the Research Foundation, work on many of these issues would be ignored or delayed.
Redefining the Research Foundation
The trustees of the Research Foundation are in the process of reviewing the mission of the Research Foundation so that we can tightly redefine the purpose of the Foundation and provide a philosophical framework for the future of the Foundation. For example, one question we might wish to explore is the heavy past emphasis on academic research which advances knowledge but has few practical uses for the typical ARS member. Although I expect that most of that type of research will continue, we could consider funding more well thought out studies which are of interest to the lay person from a gardening perspective as opposed to studies which concentrate on scientific knowledge advancement.
Once we finalize our review of the Research Foundation's mission, we will work with the Research Committee in obtaining a list of research needs from the ARS membership and other sources. This will help the Research Committee guide grant applicants to propose studies which are of high interest to the ARS.
How You Can Help
The Research Foundation needs your support, either by adding an amount to your annual membership renewal in the fall, or through making a special donation by check made out to the Research Foundation of the American Rhododendron Society.