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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Appendix C External Views of the NRI The committee sought to gather impressions and systematic data on the functioning of the NRI from knowledgeable constituent groups through three mechanisms: a survey, interviews with former NRI chief scientists, and formal testimony of NRI stakeholders. As a first comprehensive effort to assess the functioning of the NRI, surveys (see appendix B) were mailed to deans and directors of land grant and non-land grant institutions, recipients of NRI grants, nonrecipients in the applicant pool, and representatives of industry. In October 1998, the committee conducted interviews with four former chief scientists. The committee also received testimony from a wide range of stakeholders, including professional societies, nonprofit research institutes, industry, universities, experiment stations, farm organizations, and federal agencies. This appendix summarizes the results of all those efforts. SURVEY RESULTS Four specific groups were identified by the committee for its survey of the NRI: recipients of NRI grants, nonrecipients of NRI grants, administrators of land grant institutions, and industry. The NRI provided lists of recipients and nonrecipients of grants for 1995–1997. Names and addresses of administrators of land grant and non-land grant institutions were supplied by the National
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. The committee determined the remaining contacts, including representatives of medium to large companies. The survey was sent to every tenth name on awardee and nonrecipient (declined at least twice) lists. Questions formulated by the committee were mailed by the NRI to awardees and nonrecipients in August 1998 (see appendix B). The National Research Council staff mailed the survey to the remaining groups. Those surveyed were asked to select from among the given responses and were also encouraged to provide additional written comments. Replies were collated by the staff, and the committee reviewed the responses, evaluated the results, and summarized recommendations from those surveyed. Although the survey is not statistically representative of the NRI applicant and awardee populations, the large number of respondents is indicative of the views of those with experience with the NRI. Response Rates and General Themes Table A2–1 presents the response rates of all surveyed groups that were tracked in the survey (for example, researchers at federal laboratories were included among NRI awardees and nonrecipients, not tracked as a separate group). The survey had a response rate of at least 50 % for three of the four groups, industry was the exception. Table A2–2 breaks down the response rates for recipients and nonrecipients by NRI program area. TABLE A2–1 Response Rate by Group Surveyed Group Surveyed No. Sent No. Received Response Rate, % Awardees 203 141 69.5 Nonrecipients 102 51 50.0 Land Grant Institutions 85 60 70.6 Industry 142 37 26.1 Total 532 289 54.3
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research TABLE A2–2 Responses of Awardees and Nonrecipients by NRI Research Area Research area No. Awardees No. No-recipients Sent Received Sent Received Natural Resources and the Environment 24 20 21 7 Nutrition, Food Safety, and Health 13 10 9 5 Animals 36 25 24 11 Plants 46 29 12 6 Markets, Trade, and Rural Development 9 6 5 3 Enhancing Value and Use of Agricultural and Forest Products 16 9 7 4 Pest Biology, Biological Control, and Integrated Pest Management 35 25 19 12 Agricultural Systems Research 3 2 3 2 Strengthening Programs 20 14 2 1 NSF/DOE/NASA/USDA Joint Program on Terrestrial Ecology and Global Change (TECO) 1 1 – – Total 203 141 102 51 Nearly all respondents indicated that the NRI program had contributed to generating fundamental and applied research, and training future scientists for agriculture (see question 2). A large majority of respondents indicated that the NRI had contributed to the development of human resources in food and agriculture, specifically in career development and predoctoral and postdoctoral training (see question 6). In addition, an overwhelming percentage of those surveyed in all four target groups believed that the NRI program had resulted in major benefits to the US food and agriculture system (see question 7). Virtually all respondents viewed continuation of the NRI program as essential (see question 10). An overwhelming percentage of NRI recipients and a majority of nonrecipients indicated that the NRI uses a fair peer-review process to select proposals for funding (see question 3). Respondents who had review-panel experience in other competitive grants programs were especially complimentary of the NRI process. Some nonrecipients and administrators of land grant institutions criticized some elements of the peer-review process, including panel composition, the single yearly application, the long response times, and the length of panel terms. Most of respondents believed that the congressionally mandated program areas are appropriate (see question 8). A few respondents that the areas overlapped or did not represent their research interests. Several respondents favored high-risk, high-reward projects and suggested greater emphasis on interdisciplinary proposals. Questions 9 and 11 addressed improvements in the NRI program. Question 9 asked how additional money should be used if the NRI received a large
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research increase in appropriations. Question 11 asked respondents how they would improve the NRI. The majority response to question 9 was to increase the size and duration of awards, followed by expansion into new areas. In response to question 11, awardees were generally satisfied with program operations. Their responses centered on refining the review process, they recommended less turnover among the review panels and more rapid and more frequent reviews. Awardees also expressed concern about reviewers competing for grants themselves in their research areas. Nonrecipients expressed concerns about the review process, especially the selection of panel members and reviewers and the need to avoid an “old boy network”. They also favored more rapid and more frequent reviews. Several respondents suggested a preproposal process to shorten evaluation time. Many respondents expressed the view that total funding of the program was insufficient and that awards were too short, too few, and too small (see question 11). The low overhead rate was cited by some respondents but was not a major concern. The survey was limited in scope and statistical significance. The results reflect the views only of the respondents. Most respondents clearly had a personal interest in the continuation and expansion of the NRI. However, the high response rate, the thoroughness of the responses, and the numerous suggestions for improvement reflect the high importance of the NRI to these members of the research community. Detailed Summary of Survey Data The following sections summarize the survey results for the groups tracked in the survey for each of the 11 survey questions. For each question (sometimes each group), a tabular summary of responses is followed by an overview of the written comments provided by some respondents. Except where noted, narrative descriptions refer only to written comments and thus reflect the views of respondents who took the time to provide them; the narrative descriptions do not necessarily reflect the general views of all those who completed the survey. 1. Are you familiar with the USDA/NRI program? Awardees Nonrecipients Land Grant Industry Yes, very familiar 117 44 47 6 Yes, somewhat familiar 22 7 12 15 Not familiar 2 — 1 15 NRI Awardees: Twenty-three indicated that they had been involved in the NRI activities either as panel members, panel managers, or ad hoc reviewers. Some awardees had been denied NRI awards in the past.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Nonrecipients: This group included scientists who in 1995–1997 had been denied NRI awards at least twice. The nonrecipient included researchers who had received NRI grants in the past. Six applicants indicated that they participated in the NRI process as panel members or reviewers. Land Grant: One respondent served as a reviewer, one as a panel manager, and one as a panel member. One indicated that his university was a big source of reviewers for the NRI. Two respondents wrote that researchers from their institutions applied for NRI grants and some were successful in receiving them. One person felt that because of the way funds were allocated and the method of evaluation, program activities were widely dispersed and funded for a short time; therefore, the NRI does not nearly reach the potential one would demand.” Industry: Only a few respondents made comments about the NRI. Three respondents were not interested in learning about the program, because of the confidentiality of their research or because the application and review process was too slow. 2. In your view, has the program contributed to the mission of generating fundamental and applied research, and future scientists for agriculture? Awardees Nonrecipients Land Grant Industry Yes, for the most part 111 30 33 12 Yes, but less than I expected 22 13 24 8 No, its promise remains largely unfulfilled 3 5 — — Awardees: Although some respondents commented that the program focused too much on fundamental or applied research, the general consensus was that despite limited funding, the NRI contributed greatly to fundamental research and to the training of scientists (graduate students and postdoctoral scientists.) In many instances the program provided funds to innovative and valuable research that otherwise would not have been performed. Many respondents considered the NRI crucial to US agriculture. Almost all comments indicated that more funding would make the program more effective.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Nonrecipients: Only a few researchers made positive comments about the NRI. Some indicated that because of low funding many program areas were not adequately addressed. As a result, many researchers were discouraged from applying for NRI funding. Some felt that only “cutting-edge” and “politically popular” ideas were funded. Others felt that reviewers were not “adventurous” and avoided more innovative projects. Several commented that there was too little emphasis on applied research; one stated the opposite. Land Grant: Respondents agreed that NRI funds were too low, which, in combination with the low success rate, discouraged many researchers from participating in the program. Many agreed that the NRI was generating important fundamental research and allowed training of graduate students. However, comments were also made that more funding should be available for applied research. There were only a few comments that more awards should be made to 1890 institutions. Industry: A few respondents wrote that the program was underfunded; two felt that the NRI was successful, and one felt that it contributed to advanced knowledge about pork quality and post-mortem physiology. 3. Is the NRI peer review process fair? Awardees Nonrecipients Land Grant Industry Yes 125 39 49 16 No 4 14 8 — Awardees: A number of respondents indicated that the process was fairer than that of NIH or NSF. Those who served on NRI panels wrote highly about the fairness and honesty of the process, in which the best science is awarded. Many respondents considered reviewers’ comments appropriate and constructive. Some felt that reviewers were too conservative in their approaches to new ideas. Some felt that proposals were reviewed by competitors; two had been asked to review proposals while their own proposals were being reviewed within the same sections. Comments were also made that the NRI should ensure continuity on the panels to avoid inconsistency in evaluating grants from year to year. Four respondents marked both “yes” and “no”.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Nonrecipients: Most of the comments were critical of the reviewers and panel members. Some applicants had a perception that panels do not spend enough time to review proposals and rely too heavily on reviewers’ comments. Sometimes the reviewer and the applicant compete for the same money. Others felt that there was too much favoritism in selecting panel members and reviewers and that these groups represented the “old boy” network; there is also favoritism in funding of some program areas. Many excellent proposals do not receive funding. On the other hand, those who served on NRI panels attested to the fairness of the process—each project receives a lot of attention and is discussed extensively. One panel member mentioned that projects were discussed in the order in which they were received at the NRI, so the earlier-arriving proposals received better and fresher consideration; this person recommended numbering projects randomly instead of sequentially. Two respondents marked both “yes” and “no.” Land Grant: A majority of comments showed negative perception of the review process. Respondents felt that panel members were biased against applied research and some categories of applicants and institutions. One person used the term “old boy network”. Expertise of reviewers and panel members was questioned as well. Some felt that a broader-based review process should be implemented for the interdisciplinary research and that more unconventional ideas should be funded. Industry: Three comments were made in this section: the process is too political and scientists used grant reviews to prepare for the next grant, the process is fair (on the basis of discussions with other researchers), and expectations are higher than reality of needs and ability to deliver.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research 4. Has your career been affected by applying for or receiving an NRI grant? (If this question does not apply to you, but you know someone whose career is or has been affected, please fill in the following.) Awardees: Greatly Some Very Little Promotion impact 65 43 17 Tenure impact 50 30 29 Publication(s) 89 43 4 Patent(s) 7 22 58 Career development of undergrad students 35 51 29 Career development of your graduate students 84 21 15 Career development of your post-doctoral fellows 71 19 17 Ability to pursue independent (curiosity-driven) research 82 32 16 About 50% of respondents felt that NRI grants contributed to their promotions. About 60%indicated that they were able to pursue independent research that led to publications. Many respondents emphasized the NRI’s role in creating research and training programs; for most of them, NRI grants were crucial in establishing their research (often curiosity-driven) programs that attracted many graduate students and postdoctoral scientist (60% of respondents indicated great NRI impact in this area). Many of these grants allowed young researchers to manage and direct research projects and prepared them to run their own laboratories. The NRI is considered essential to fundamental and basic research. Again, many comments were made about too low funding. Non-recipients: Greatly Some Very Little Promotion impact 14 12 16 Tenure impact 12 8 17 Publication(s) 18 11 15 Patent(s) 2 3 24 Career development of undergrad. Students 6 14 19 Career development of your graduate students 19 18 8 Career development of your post-doctoral fellows 17 9 14 Ability to pursue independent (curiosity-driven) research 15 18 14 This group of respondents made very few comments. A couple of researchers expressed the opinion that the NRI is “absolute necessity” and that receiving an NRI award was “one of the most important milestones a faculty
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research member can achieve.” Some felt that NRI funds allowed them to conduct fundamental research that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. However, others wrote that applying for NRI grants meant nothing unless funds were received and that not receiving funds had rather adverseeffects on their careers. Land Grant: Greatly Some Very Little Promotion impact 16 14 9 Tenure impact 15 12 10 Publication(s) 20 13 6 Patent(s) — 9 24 Career development of undergrad. Students 5 17 15 Career development of graduate students 18 16 5 Career development of post-doctoral fellows 13 21 6 Ability to pursue independent (curiosity-driven) research 16 16 8 Very few comments were provided for this section. One respondent felt that NRI funds were not sufficient to support graduate students. Another felt that the NRI was an additional important funding source for the college. One person wrote that the short-term nature of grants did not contribute to an effective research program. Another provided an example of a junior faculty member who went from an NRI postdoctoral position to an assistant professorship; additional funds received from the National Science Foundation (NSF) increased the researcher’s chance of promotion and tenure. Industry: Greatly Some Very Little Promotion impact 3 2 4 Tenure impact 2 2 4 Publication(s) 3 2 5 Patent(s) — 2 7 Career development of undergrad. Students — 3 6 Career development of graduate students 2 2 5 Career development of post-doc fellows 3 2 5 Ability to pursue independent (curiosity-driven) research 2 2 4 Most of the comments indicated that this question was not applicable. One person used a colleague’s career to mark the items.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research 5. Has the NRI enabled you or your institution/company to obtain other research funds (leveraging)? Awardees Nonrecipients Land Grant Industry Yes 78 16 43 2 No 54 30 16 18 Awardees: Those who received funds were able to continue research supported by NRI grants or to pursue new projects (in some instances, NRI grants supported pilot projects that led to bigger projects supported by industry). Funds were received from state or federal—the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Institute of Health (NIH), NSF, or the Department of Energy (DOE)-industry, commodity and growers groups, and producer organizations. Very expensive commercial computer software was donated to one laboratory. Examples were cited in which NRI grants helped in obtaining funds from Australia and Japan to conduct international collaborative research projects. In other cases, NRI grants helped in obtaining travel funds for an international conference or a fellowship abroad or helped in build a strong program that led to additional faculty and facilities funded by state. Many respondents felt that receiving NRI grants made them more competitive for other funding sources. Only a few comments were made by those who did not receive funds from other sources. Some were in the process of applying for funds and expressed optimism. Some postdoctoral scientists indicated that their NRI grants were not designed to combine with other funds. Only one person stated that the NRI played a minor role for him or her and his or her colleagues in their research programs “and in the end contributes little to them”. Nonrecipients: Only a few comments were made by this group, mostly by researchers who received funds from other sources. Those sources included state agencies, USD A, growers organizations, and private companies. The respondents felt that receiving NRI grants greatly contributed to their obtaining funds from other sources. Some said that the NRI played a major role in building programs and reputations and that, as the main support of agricultural research, NRI funds were of more value than funds from other sources. One person commented that an established research area did not attract many diverse funding sources. Land Grant: Funds were received from various sources: NSF, commodity groups, industry, and as university matches. NRI funding is highly recognized by other agencies and builds a foundation for other funding. It also gives a good start in competing for grants and contracts.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Industry: Of the two respondents who received funds, only one provided its source: the National Pork Producers Council. 6. Has the NRI contributed to development of human resources in food and agriculture? Awardees Nonrecipients Land Grant Industry Yes 105 34 53 16 No 10 5 5 1 Awardees: A vast majority of respondents agreed that NRI grants allowed them to attract and support graduate students and postdoctoral scientists. Training the future generation of researchers is one of the greatest attributes of the NRI. A couple of respondents looked at the human-resources aspect from a different angle. For example, one researcher working on a viral disease of cattle developed an animal model of a closely related viral disease of humans; findings of the research improved meat and milk production and gave insights into a human disease. A similar example was cited by another person, whose work on animal disease led to animal models applicable to human disease, generating proposals to NIH. Other examples were patented processes for strain development, currently being tested in the field; rural development efforts coordinated with county land-use planning, development of a new fertilizer that will have an impact on foodstuffs production and, work on viral diseases that affect agriculture in Montana. Some of those who did not mark any answer indicated that they had no opinion. Only a few of respondents who marked “no” made comments. One stated that the NRI program was too small and had very little training potential. Another wrote that because of the nature of his or her research—(development of skeletal muscle), no contribution to human resources was made. Nonrecipients: Most of the respondents who made comments agreed that the NRI contributed greatly to training of graduate students and postdoctoral scientists, especially in fundamental research. Only one person commented that short-term grants discouraged training of graduate students. Another person wrote that “simply writing or reviewing NRI proposals develops ‘human resources,’ namely the PIs.”
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Land Grant: Very much Somewhat Not much Is the NRI continuance important to you? 41 12 4 Is the NRI continuance important to your institution? 43 7 7 Is the NRI’s continuance important for the U.S.? 49 6 1 Is the NRI an important part of the USD A Research portfolio? 47 4 2 Is the overhead rate (now 19%) —acceptable? (11 marked without ranking) 12 6 1 —a deterrent? (4 marked without ranking) 3 5 — Comments discussed only the overhead rate. All agreed that 19% was not sufficient and that full rates should be allowed. Industry: Very much Somewhat Not much Is the NRI continuance important to you? 11 8 2 Is the NRI continuance important to your institution? 8 8 5 Is the NRI’s continuance important for the U.S.? 14 4 1 Is the NRI an important part of the USDA research portfolio? 15 3 2 Is the overhead rate (now 19%) —acceptable? (6 marked without ranking) 2 3 — —a deterrent? 1 1 — One respondent wrote that 19% overhead rate was “in line with most institutions”, another that it should not increase, and another that the “probably keeps institutions from pushing researchers too hard to apply for NRI grants for unwarranted work.”
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research 11. How would you improve the NRI? Mark all that apply. Change … Awardees Nonrecipients Land Grant Industry Yes No Yes No Yes No Yes No …program areas 36 89 21 23 15 36 8 7 …Application process 29 94 14 27 11 40 6 8 …Review process 24 96 27 16 19 31 4 12 Awardees: A majority of respondents voted against changes in program areas, the application process, or the review process. Many respondents emphasized again the importance of increasing the size and duration of awards and the number of awards and submissions per year. Recommended changes in the review process included creating more permanent review panels (for example, 3-year terms with one-third of the panel rotating off each year), more rapid and frequent reviews, banning the use of reviewers competing for the same funds, and ensuring that qualified reviewers are used in the process. Many repeated recommendations to change (extend) their own program areas. Some felt that the program should focus more on basic research, others more on applied. Nonrecipients: Many respondents emphasized the need to change the review process. Recommended changes included better selection of panel members and reviewers to avoid “old boys” networks, ensuring that only competent researchers review proposals, ensuring that all types of institutions are represented on panels, limiting the number of USD A researchers in the decision-making process, and creating more permanent panels. Recommendations were also made about the application process. Researchers spend too much time on writing proposals that are not funded. One respondent recommended that ad hoc reviews should be sent to applicants before panels meet and that applicants should be allowed to prepare a response for review by the panel with the reviewers’ comments. Others recommended screening preproposals, shortening turnaround time, and increasing the number of submission dates per year. Other recommendations included expanding or adding program areas, developing a better mechanism for handling integrated areas, and awarding more “adventurous” proposals. One respondent suggested creating an exploratory research program for ideas that are not in line with “normal” funding routes. Many recommendations were also made to increase the size, duration, and number of awards.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Land Grant: Many comments made by these respondents on question were repeated here. In addition to increasing funding duration, and number of awards, recommendations were made regarding the review process, such as diversifying panels by adding constituent groups (users), adding scientists who represent various geographic areas and cover a broader spectrum of science; and adding a relevance review. Some recommended expanding program areas to customer or citizen concerns and priorities, tropical and subtropical plant and animal research, cropping systems, food safety and environment, and epidemiologic issues. Others recommended decreasing the number of program areas and focusing on science. Also, more funding was recommended for land grant universities and small institutions. More innovative projects should be funded, and the funding rate of applied or mission-related projects should be improved. Industry: Recommendations were made to increase the size of awards, to implement a preproposal screening process, to specify targeted research areas, to provide a list of experts (“sounding boards”) for discussing proposals, to expand into multiple products from single-source feedstocks, to place emphasis on nutrition, to connect programmatic support from the NRI to universities or private laboratories with industrial long-term needs, to screen projects for maintaining US competitiveness, to consider smaller local and regional research organizations for awards, and to separate plant-science programs from commodity lobbies. INTERVIEWS WITH FORMER CHIEF SCIENTISTS In October 1998, the committee conducted separate interviews with four former chief scientists: Paul Stumpf, 1989–1991; Arthur Kelman, 1992–1993; James Cook, 1994–1995; and Ronald Phillips, 1996–1997. The committee asked about their roles and experience with the NRI and about recommendations for the future. The chief scientists provided direct insight into the “nuts and bolts” of the NRI and its interactions with USDA and other agencies. Each of them was proud of the NRI program and had a deep personal commitment to its principles and practices. The discussion below summarizes their opinions and advice. There was general agreement on all major issues, although they placed different emphases on some issues. Major Issue Each chief scientist strongly believed that the NRI suffers from inadequate funding and that the original target for NRI funding of $500 million per year would provide the nation with valuable research. That amount would allow a doubling of both the number of funded grants and the size of grants. The inability to reach the original level and the plateau of current funding were
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research attributed to the lack of strong USDA support, the absence of a strong commitment to USDA by Congress, and inadequate understanding of the importance of food and fiber research during a period of abundant food production in the United States. Role of the Chief Scientist The Chief Scientist has primary responsibility for the scientific oversight of the NRI programs, the staff, and the review panels. As administrator of the NRI, the chief scientist reports to the under secretary of agriculture for research, education, and economics (before 1994, it was the assistant secretary for research and education); to the Administrator of the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service; and to the USDA Board of Directors of the NRI, which includes the administrators of the intramural research agencies. Since 1989, the chief scientist has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and has usually been selected from institutions outside USDA. The former chief scientists expressed the view that fresh leadership is important, as is a need for a balance between experience and new perspectives. The chief scientist must be resistant to political pressures and advocates of special interests. All former NRI chief scientists have been plant biologists, and one was a USDA/Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientist. The chief scientist usually recommends a successor after consultation with NRI staff and administration. Some chief scientists believed that the stature that comes with membership in NAS facilitated interactions with other agencies and provided greater access to influential people during their tenure. The chief scientist position is a half-time position. It is a difficult job for a scientist who must maintain an active research program at another institution during his or her tenure. The chief scientists noted that the position is equivalent to a full-time job and requires considerable startup time. Generally, the chief scientist serves for 2 years. It was suggested that the term be lengthened to provide the NRI with the benefit of extended experience. However, it could be difficult to find scientists who can command the confidence of the academic community and who feel able to spend such a long period in Washington as chief scientist for the NRI. The chief scientist is supported by a permanent staff, including a deputy administrator, who can make decisions when the chief scientist is not present, has good historical insight, and interacts effectively with administrators in other agencies. The chief scientist role often includes development of joint programs with other agencies, such as NSF and DOE. The former chief scientists thought that such cooperation would be increasingly important as the scope of research by other agencies embraces food, fiber, and natural resources. The interface with special-interest groups is a large part of the chief scientist’s activities. The NRI research agenda ranges from biotechnology farming practices, to tropical forestry, family farms, use of energy in agriculture and forestry, food safety, and environmental impact. All those areas have urgent
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research research needs and expectations for support from the NRI. Tensions can arise if research communities believe that they are not adequately represented in decision-making and the sharing of resources. Program Areas The chief scientists cited several reasons for the increase in NRI program areas. One is the strong interest of specific commodity or interest groups in specific research programs. It is often easier to obtain money from Congress for a new program than to obtain more money for an established program. In some cases, new programs were created through administrative decisions made by USDA or Congress. New programs reflect flexibility in the research agenda. However, once program areas are established, they are vulnerable to preemption by smaller research communities that depend on the NRI as for their primary source of support. The chief scientists suggested that a sunset clause would be useful for new programs. A science advisory council could also review program areas. Fairness in Evaluation of Submitted Applications All chief scientists expressed confidence in the peer-review and evaluation process. Although the review process is long and thorough, panel members generally view it as satisfying and fair. The funding rate is low, and funding levels are often minimal. But complaints about unfairness are few. Scientists, panel members, and administrators generally view the process as exceptionally fair. The former chief scientists and the participating scientists also emphasized that service on panels is a great learning experience. Scientists who serve as panel managers gain valuable administrative experience in a high-quality research-evaluation process. Quality of NRI Research Chief scientists were convinced that the peer-reviewed competitive process substantially enhances the quality of research. The evaluations are valuable in themselves, but there is increased benefit when scientists prepare for competitive grant review. Until the creation of the competitive grants program, effective competitive peer-reviewed evaluation of grant proposals was not a major part of the nation’s funding of agricultural research by USDA. Virtually all food and fiber research was evaluated “in house”, typically by CSRS review teams. That procedure did not provide the expert-level, critical review that is needed to assess the quality of specific project proposals. The value of the review process in providing suggestions for improvement in proposals is high. The NRI has attracted new scientists to food, fiber, and natural-resources research. The program is open to all universities, research institutes, and USDA research laboratories. Thus, it fosters increased efforts to conduct
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research interdisciplinary research. Furthermore, it increases the scientific scope beyond purely agricultural disciplines. USDA Administration and Management The former chief scientists believed it essential that the chief scientist report directly to the under secretary of agriculture for research, education, and economics. That was specified in the original job description, but it has not been consistently practiced. The under secretary is rarely available, or the position might be vacant. The administrator of CSREES also has oversight responsibility for the NRI. However, NRI policy decisions often require wide stakeholder input and consultation from USDA management. Such assistance and guidance were expected to come from the Board of Directors, which is composed of administrators of the intramural USDA research agencies (such as ARS, the Economic Research Service, and the Forest Service FS). They are often under pressure, however, to increase funding for their own agencies and might not be well informed about NRI issues. The chief scientists cited a lack of advocacy for the NRI in USDA. The NRI has had an “orphan” status. It has not been fully accepted by USDA and is often perceived as competing with intramural programs for research funds. Congress has reinforced the perception when NRI funding was taken from other USDA funds and allocated to other uses. Economic Evaluation of NRI Program Areas One former chief scientist observed that agricultural economists have not been adequately involved in the process of evaluating agricultural research. The economic aspects of research must be integrated into the NRI evaluation process and more broadly related to both basic and applied research in agriculture. Relationship with Congress The chief scientists noted the absence of NRI advocacy in Congress. Political support often is directed to mission-oriented research, despite the important role of basic research in the NRI. The original balance of 80 % of basic research and 20 % of mission oriented has been shifted to 60–40. The chief scientists believe that it is important to raise the research image of USDA, both outside and within the agency. The broad scope of USDA hampers the perception of it as a science-based research agency. One example is the recently funded NSF program on plant genomics. Congress allocated funds for the plant-genome program to NSF even though USDA has a long and successful history of work in plant genomics. Earlier, USDA joined with NSF to support the Arabidopsis genome program. USDA actively promoted work on the plant genome for many years and recently led an interagency group to establish a
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research national initiative on the plant genome. However, Congress awarded the new funding to NSF. TESTIMONY The committee devoted a full day to receiving testimony from interested stakeholders. The stakeholder were in the following groups: Panel 1—professional societies and nonprofit research institutes: Agricultural Research Institute; Council for Agricultural Science and Technology; Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions; Council on Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics; Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology; Henry A.Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture; and Tri-Societies of America. Panel 2—industry: Monsanto; Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc; and Gala Design LLC. Panel 3—universities and experiment stations: USDA Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area Advisory Board; and Experiment Station Committee on Organization and Policy. Panel 4—farm organizations: Animal Agriculture Coalition, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association, and National Cotton Council. Panel 5—federal agencies: USDA Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area; Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Office of Management and Budget. Respondents were asked to comment on the four objectives of the study: The quality and value of NRI funded research. NRI research priorities within major program areas. Complementarity of NRI programs with other USDA research programs, the federal agencies, state and regional programs, and the private sector. Future changes in the NRI. Quality and Value of Research Testimony from all panels consistently cited the high quality of NRI research and generation of new technologies. A transparent process for evaluating NRI outcomes was lacking. Observers indicated that the NRI was not alone among federal research agencies in this measurement problem. Panelists considered the NRI a vital, effective component of USDA research. The NRI has filled gaps in food and fiber research and trained future generations of scientists. The peer-review system was considered the best way to assess projects and distribute funds. However, the farm groups cited a lack of NRI identity in the overall research agenda, limited awareness of the research
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research funded by the NRI, and a loss in interactions between the NRI and research users. Representatives of Pioneer, Monsanto, and Gala Design spoke strongly on behalf of publicly supported research. Each indicated that the products they were selling or anticipated selling were based on important contributions by past publicly funded research. The USDA representatives suggested that low funding of the NRI, compared with NIH and NSF, placed food and fiber research in a less favored position than biomedical research. They also cited a public perception that the high payoffs from food and fiber research in the past obviated high levels of support in the future. There is a critical need to increase public awareness of the benefits of NRI-supported research. And there is a need for a clearer understanding of the roles of publicly and privately supported research. Priority-Setting The panelists consistently cited the need for improvements in priority-setting for NRI research. Although, funding is now “category-driven”, most participants supported “issue funding”, focusing on solutions to specific problems and issues. Those issues would be translated into specific requests for proposals. Such problem-focused research would be more easily understood by stakeholders and more effectively related to the rest of USDA research and to the research agendas of other federal agencies. Many participants perceived an absence of national goals for food, fiber, and natural-resources research. The Food Animal Integrated Research of 1995 (FAIR ‘95) and the Coalition for Research on Plant Systems of 1999 (CROPS ’99) priority-setting initiatives were useful, but they fell short of achieving national research priorities. Much discussion also centered on the distribution of funds between basic and applied research. Commodity groups tend to favor applied research; while professional societies emphasize basic research. Striking an effective balance is a persistent challenge. Industry representatives commented that the NRI priorities are too broad for the available funding. They felt that NRI priorities overemphasized commodity approaches and that commodity groups have enormous influence on funding, as in the case of genomics. The industry panel recommended that areas of interest to food and fiber biotechnology stakeholders funded by the public sector include soil management and carbon sequestration; seed biology (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and trace-element mobilization and use); biotic stress tolerance (plant metabolism and heat and cold resistance); pest management and pathogens; analytic tools for studying grains; nutrition (understanding of plant-derived nutrients); molecular breeding tools; and bioinformatics. At least two panelists noted the relatively low funding of social-science research by the NRI, including how scientific discoveries affect the social and operating structure of the food system. Those interested in social sciences
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research emphasized a systems approach to research in which social-science investigation would play an important part. The discussion of social sciences also was linked to mission-driven research. Several panelists observed that the NRI lacked a mission orientation despite its statutory mandate. Some pointed out that stronger observance of mission would move the NRI toward applied research and away from basic research. One participant observed that the NRI research niche is not clear either within USDA or with regard to the overall needs of the food and fiber system. The need for interdisciplinary or integrated research received considerable discussion, especially in light of limitations attributable to the small grant amounts. One participant questioned whether additional funds were needed, because “good researchers today are getting good funding and are working at 150 % of capacity.” Others, particularly in the professional societies and universities, differed. Finally, the concepts of scientifically sound research and “relevance” received long discussion. Participants recommended implementing a two-tier proposal-review process. In tier 1, scientists and industry representatives would jointly review relevance; tier 2 would be a scientific merit review. It became clear during the discussion that relevance could reflect stakeholder understanding and involvement in the NRI process. Everyone wanted scientifically sound research, but some were more interested in short-term applied research to help solve current problems. Stakeholders All participants indicated the need for increased transparency in the priority-setting and granting processes of the NRI. The FAIR ‘95 and CROPS ‘99 initiatives were cited as ways in which all stakeholders can participate in priority-setting. Again, stakeholders closest to the farmer had a more immediate view of their needs, and those closest to the universities and scientific societies had a more basic, long-term approach. To be fair, the commodity groups indicated that they understood the importance of basic research. They want, however, to tell their members how a basic-research concept or idea might ultimately result in the solution of a problem that their members experience. Some commodity groups indicated increasing disenchantment with the NRI because of the lack of transparency and the small amount of available funding. University panelists also suggested evidence of reduced interest in the NRI because of small grant amounts, short grant duration, low approval rates, and low overhead percentage (14 %). Awardees’ institutions must make up the difference between the overhead paid by the sponsor and the standard overhead rate received from a federal source. All participants agreed that the NRI is not well understood by those who are not principal investigators. Its processes are murky, and its role, especially in research training, is under-appreciated. All participants insisted that increased basic research in food, fiber, and natural resources is absolutely required but, they felt that better priority-setting and the involvement of stakeholders in
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research understanding the direction, purposes, and operations of the NRI were essential to its future success. Complementarity All the panelists indicated that the integration of research across disciplines, institutions, and sectors of the economy is greater than it was a decade ago. The need for effective NRI partnerships and the federal research community and other USDA agencies was noted repeatedly. Internal Processes Participants responded favorably about the day-to-day operations of the NRI, although feedback to those not receiving NRI grants might be improved. Should the position of chief scientist be a full-time position or continue as a part-time position? The arguments for full time were based on continuity, priority-setting, and relationships with stakeholders. The arguments against were the “burnout nature” of the job and whether qualified scientists would be willing to serve for more than 2 years. Committee members often asked whether the NRI would thrive outside the “USDA budget box”. The participants believed that it would be politically difficult to achieve and might eliminate NRI funding altogether if it were attempted. Funding Almost every participant volunteered that the NRI was dramatically underfunded. Grants were seen as too short, too small, and with too low an overhead allowance. The transaction costs of applying to the NRI were seen as high, given the odds of receiving a grant and the amount of money available, was referred to repeatedly. The original National Research Council study (1989) that recommended $500 million for the NRI. Representatives of federal agencies strongly supported increases in NRI funds. They emphasized, however, that limited funding for the NRI resulted from the limited amount of money available for all agricultural programs (such as research, rural development, soil conservation, and forest service.) It was not the committee’s specific task to investigate the level and disposition of funding for the NRI, but the panelists offered many comments as to why food and fiber research, as an area of national need, has been chronically underfunded during a period of rising resources for both NSF and NTH. Those discussions included lack of money, the inability of users to advocate food and fiber research, internal competition within USDA, lack of support by USDA and university researcher performers, the paucity of “rural” or food system
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research representation in Congress, and competition among various congressional committees to control funds. Changes for the Future Participants suggested numerous changes for the NRI. The first was more funding. The second was the development of a consistent and well-understood priority-setting process. The third was coordination of NRI research priorities with those of USDA and other federal agencies. Participants found the idea of setting up six institutes covering the six NRI divisions appealing. The institutes would be problem- and issue-driven rather than category-driven. Another prominent suggestion was to from an external advisory committee to help in setting priorities and relating to stakeholders; this advisory committee could reflect the reorientation of the NRI toward a problem-based priority-setting process. References to the “Oregon Invests!” accountability system piqued interest (GAO, 1996). The “Oregon Invests!” database has proved to be a reliable source of information about the economic, social, and environmental consequences of agricultural research programs. By providing that accountability in easily and quickly accessible forms, it has helped to stimulate strong legislative support for the research enterprise of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station. Participants triggered discussion about how one enumerates and evaluates research outcomes that are essential to continued support. The testimony helped the committee to understand the quality of NRI-funded research, the importance of measuring that quality, and the need for effective priority-setting the NRI, and the need to address how NRI activities complement USDA and other federal programs. The committee heard thoughtful, feasible suggestions for change, particularly in how the NRI might relate more openly and receptively to current and future stakeholders.
Representative terms from entire chapter: