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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Appendix D Outline for Interviews (June 16, 1998) with USDA Professional Staff on Internal Workings of the NRI Program Note 1: Summary material from the first committee meeting was used to craft various questions and statements of issues that should be touched on during the day-long interview discussions with USDA staff. They are offered here as a framework of possible approaches to conversations. Note 2: A recurrent theme to be probed in the interviews is the difference between expectations raised by the creation of NRI and the perception that it has yet to fulfill them due to congressional limits on budget, less than full participation by segments of the agricultural research community, and the difficulty in changing culture—both within an agency and in the research-performing institutions it supports.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research I. Main Categories of Guiding Questions/Issues A. Funding and Oversight Why has this program been so poorly funded (at only 10 percent of original plan)? Perceived Congressional “neglect” to NRI: national competitiveness and national security. How does the NRI fit in with other grant programs? B. Internal Processes Identify priorities within NRI and explore how they were set. Integrity of the peer review process. Concern about “good old boy” perception of grant recipients. Identify the realities of multidisciplinary research (including social sciences). Concern about minimal industry involvement. Question of how to complement peer review process with aspects of industry evaluation. C. Impacts/Measures of Success Is the NRI bringing in new young scientists and fresh research ideas? What’s the process of evaluating retrospective studies? II. Issues Arising from USDA Staff Appearance before the Committee What is the role of public input to existing research mechanisms and how do NRI mechanisms help to solve problems effectively? Faced with the current funding limitations, how does NRI need to focus the current program? USDA seeks guidance on overall management (or “portfolio”) questions such as number vs. size of awards, program priorities, and program collaboration. What qualifies as performance measures of mission-focused research that is at the same time high-risk, i.e., projects traditionally funded by the NRI? NRI’s unique challenge is to advance the basic science that will address issues not even identified yet. How, then, does the program effectively redefine agricultural science research initiatives to be anticipatory?
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research For the NRI Leadership: What are the reasons behind NRI’s stagnancy? The traditional agricultural science community was weaned on formula funds to build institutional capacity, not competitive grants to support specific projects. Is the tradition a significant continuing barrier to research constituency participation? To congressional support? Who is an advocate of the NRI in Congress? Who is politically a positive force for the NRI -scientific societies, lobbyists, commodity groups (re: the Farm Bill)? III. Committee Questions To USDA Staff (during April 29 appearance) Embellished for Follow Up in Interviews For Program Staff: Are the program and the constituency in conflict? Is the constituency’s reluctance due to the size and length of the awards, number of awards, a perceived lack of mission clarity, or other perceptions? Non-land grant scientists and scientists in nontraditional areas in agriculture are not well represented within the constituency. Public perception of agriculture research and its importance play a big part. How critical is the perception that the NRI is insulated and disconnected from other agricultural science research programs? Is the quality of the NRI program an issue? The standard of quality seems to rely on the peer review panels, i.e., success in landing top scientists to serve on the panels. Similarly, research with high consensus peer rankings must be declined each year due to limited funds. Each of 26 research program areas is evaluated by one of about 30 panels (consisting of about 10 scientists). Last year the NRI was able to fund 24% of the proposals received (though another 25% could be funded based on quality). How can NRI’s distinct contribution or value added to the USDA’s agricultural research portfolio be determined? Systematic data on NRI’s niche relative to NSF, NIH, and the private sector, are lacking. Service by the same scientists on NRI, NSF, or NIH review panels is one measure. Submission of identical proposals to one or another agency would suggest no perception of uniqueness in program mission. Vital information would be the agency of choice, i.e., the sequence of submission before and after decline. How much latitude does NRI staff enjoy in focusing program themes and support? If Congress is micromanaging the program, though it specifies by statute only six broad areas, then should more discretion be delegated to USDA staff, a la NSF and NIH, to refine priorities, set requirements for multi and single disciplinary work, determine the amount of mission linked and fundamental work, as well
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research as a percentage of what types of institutions to fund? Continuity is important for support from the scientific research community, and funding across the six areas has been stable since 1992. In a competitive program, a tension will exist between how directive of and how responsive to the research community the program staff can be. Should the NRI be more global as opposed to national in its orientation? Other issues to be addressed are genomics research, food safety issues, and agriculture in the environment. The role of technology in all of this is a key factor, too. Should the distribution of program funds change by type of performer? Why or why not? Since 1991 the overall funding profile has been land grants (70%), other colleges and universities (16%), intramural USDA labs (4–5%). NRI is unique in that any federal agency, including USDA, can apply for an award. IV. Committee Issues to be posed as Questions Efficiency: What evidence can you cite that the NRI process is administratively efficient? What is sacrificed in the name of efficiency? (Is this quality overrated?) A. Responsiveness: How do you know that the program is responsive to advances in the agricultural knowledge base? What feedback do you get from panel members, proposers, and others to indicate responsiveness (or lack thereof) to community consensus on priorities, funding decisions, etc.? Is feedback received largely within a panel context? Give examples. B. Fairness: Fairness is at the core of any peer review process. How do you ensure that proposals are treated even-handedly? What do you tell proposers about your process? How do panel members help/hinder perceptions of fairness? What are the most common complaints about “unfairness”? Do they relate more to process or to outcome? C. Overhead calculation: How much of a deterrent is the 14% overhead cap, i.e., what is lost by its imposition and enforcement? What could be done with no cap that is precluded at present? Is the cap a lightning rod for other criticisms/complaints about program effectiveness, lack of submission, congressional indifference, etc.?
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research V. Issues Identified by the Committee as Relevant for USDA Staff Elaboration (esp. Chief Scientists/Past Directors) A. Administrative priority setting (applied vs. basic) internal management perceptions feedback B. Political political independence legislative pressure C. Niche/Portfolio perceptions of connections of program to USDA…etc. interagency process D. Individual Perspective leadership influence: what did you initiate, what impact did you have? why did you take/leave the job? would you do it again? perception of length of service (2 years vs. full-time/perm?).
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