The committee recommends that each of the six mandated areas of research emphasis be led by a half-time associate chief scientist with a 2-year rotation. Each associate would be a scientist from a visible and productive outside research program.
In recent years, the NRI staff has been stretched to cover its responsibilities, and this has increased the burdens of communication and timeliness on NRI staff at all levels and on the scientists who serve as ad hoc reviewers and panel members. The proposed rotation system would allow the chief scientist to recruit a flow of intellectual capital and would provide a mechanism for obtaining input from the population of researchers served by the NRI. The full-time chief scientist plus the six associate chief scientists would have the time and resources to carry out long-term analyses of research needs in the context of issues rather than programs, as is now the case. This recommendation highlights the importance of establishing and maintaining a scientifically based research agenda. The associate chief scientists would complement the division directors, program managers, and volunteer panel leaders.
A number of factors could account for the fact that USDA’s research agenda has struggled over the last decade. The committee understands current budget constraints and understands that the implementation of some of its recommendations would increase personnel and operating costs. We believe strongly, however, that substantial changes are needed to ensure the future success of merit-based peer-reviewed research in food, fiber, and natural resources.
The committee recommends that grant awards be immediately increased to an average of $100,000 per year (total costs) over 3 years.
NRI research grants are much smaller and shorter than grants supporting similar types of research at NSF, NIH, and DOE. Continued underfunding of NRI research grants relative to those of other federal research agencies will tend to discourage new researchers outside the traditional food and fiber system from applying for NRI grants—one original goal of the NRI. It might also cause highly qualified scientists who have received NRI support to apply for research funds from other sources and even redirect their research away from issues important to the food and fiber system. That could lead to a decrease in the overall quality of food, fiber, and natural-resources research.
The proposed increase would solidify the stakeholder foundation of the NRI and prepare it to receive additional funds. The committee recognizes that without an increase in the NRI’s total budget (as recommended strongly by this committee), the increase in size and duration of grants would reduce the number of grants and perhaps cause hardship among investigators who have depended on NRI funding to sustain their research programs. However, continued underfunding of individual research grants will reduce the aggregate impact of