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Guest Post: Public Research Universities Need a Conversation About Cuba

By Jack Payne, @JackPayneIFAS

Two months ago I walked into a room in Havana to sign on the University of Florida’s behalf an agreement with the Cuban agriculture ministry to cooperate on grains, citrus, sugar cane, and more.

I never got to hold a pen. Yet I didn’t leave discouraged. UF has been working on this relationship for more than 20 years, and we know progress doesn’t always keep pace with our striving.

We’ll keep at it because it’s too important not to. For one thing, it’s in our interest to tap into Cuban expertise on crops that Florida and Cuba have in common. For another, we need to establish the strongest scientific links possible to prepare for any opening of economic doors that could whisk pests and disease in both directions across the Straits of Florida.

And for yet another, we in the Southeast United States, as productive as we are, cannot feed the world on our own. Our neighbor 90 miles away from Key West has fertile soil, well-trained researchers, and a culture that esteems scientists as agents of progress.

Yet Cuba imports most of its food. This could be a nation that produces enough to feed its 11 million people (and its growing number of visitors) instead of one where staples are rationed.

We all have an interest in that transformation occurring without severe environmental damage. So there is also much potential in joint science on natural resources – our shared fisheries, invasive plant species, and iconic animals such as the manatee.

With so much of the public interest at stake, this is an opportunity for public research universities to do a great public service by building a scientific bridge to Cuba.

Now is an opportune moment for us to establish relationships, and identify areas of common interest – with Cuba, and among ourselves.

My observation from three trips to Cuba is that already the island is struggling to accommodate the visitors it receives. I fear that if we wait until all travel restrictions are lifted, public research universities could find ourselves lost in a much larger stampede of tourists, investors, entrepreneurs, missionaries, and anyone else out to “discover” Cuba.

UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which I lead, hasn’t waited. We have been deeply engaged with our Cuban counterparts in both academia and the various government agricultural institutes.

The Cubans will choose their scientific partners carefully from among many suitors. If the public research university community can approach Cuba as a consortium, it increases our potential to get the focused attention of our Cuban collaborators as well as to build a more comprehensive expertise.

It makes perfect sense that Cubans would be most inclined to work with those with whom they have experience in overcoming obstacles to cooperation. The University of Florida certainly has that experience.

That said, we know other land-grant universities have engaged in important outreach to Cuba. The University of Arkansas, for example, has begun sharing its expertise in rice with Cuba. The Cuban agriculture minister recently visited Iowa State University’s seed center. The University of Vermont is working with the Cubans on agroecology.

Let’s start a conversation about this instead of a series of monologues. I can be reached at jackpayne@ufl.edu , and one of my faculty (who has spent more time in Havana than at home lately), Fred Royce, is at froyce@ufl.edu.

Florida is arguably the state that has the most to gain or lose as U.S.-Cuba relations thaw. So you can bet we’re going to keep our eye on the ball.

Here’s some of what we’ve done recently to build a bridge to Cuba:

  • On September 1, World Food Prize laureate and Cuban-born soil scientist Pedro Sanchez starts work at UF/IFAS.
  • UF/IFAS entomologist Jiri Hulcr has received Farm Bill funding to research Cuban forest pests and assess the likelihood of their invasion into the U.S.
  • Last year UF/IFAS brought University of Havana marine research leader Jorge Angulo to Gainesville as a visiting scholar. We also admitted Anmari Alvarez, who was on the team that discovered Florida manatees in Cuba, as a Ph.D. student.
  • In June, UF/IFAS organized a graduate student trip, which included students from other universities, to Cuba for the second consecutive year.

We’re going to keep working to finalize that pact on grains and cane and more.

Meanwhile, the same week of the unconsummated deal with the ministry, Pedro Sanchez led a meeting of the minds that produced working groups for how specifically we’ll cooperate with leading Cuban scientists. Together we are planning joint research on grains, training a new generation of scientists, improved systems for incorporating data into decision making, and finding locations in Cuba for experiments related to crop breeding.

This historic moment offers an opportunity to assemble high-impact agricultural and environmental science partnerships. So let’s join together now to create them.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

  • Agriculture, Human Sciences & Natural Resources
  • International Programs

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