Over the last 20 years, the US food, fiber, and natural-resources system has experienced dramatic changes. It has expanded rapidly to include health, safety, and environmental issues. Emerging technologies cast transgenic crops as pharmaceutical factories and soils as mitigators of atmospheric CO2 increases. Improved understanding of animal, human, microbial, and plant genomics is providing new opportunities to control pests and disease, enhance the quality and safety of food, improve nutrition, and increase productivity. Equally impressive advances are occurring in information technology, providing the opportunity to increase productivity, minimize environmental impacts, and fundamentally alter decision-making. New discoveries and their applications are changing how business is done in the global food and fiber marketplace. Public-sector research has been at the heart of the nation’s response to challenges to its food, fiber, and natural resources.
The predicted addition of 3 billion people to the world’s population over the next 30 years—a 50% increase—could have adverse economic and social effects, especially in the food and housing sectors. The increasing population could have major effects on the world’s limited supply of arable land and cause substantial environmental degradation, including the potential for global climate change. Spinoffs from US food, fiber, and natural-resources research to the
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research 1 Introduction Over the last 20 years, the US food, fiber, and natural-resources system has experienced dramatic changes. It has expanded rapidly to include health, safety, and environmental issues. Emerging technologies cast transgenic crops as pharmaceutical factories and soils as mitigators of atmospheric CO2 increases. Improved understanding of animal, human, microbial, and plant genomics is providing new opportunities to control pests and disease, enhance the quality and safety of food, improve nutrition, and increase productivity. Equally impressive advances are occurring in information technology, providing the opportunity to increase productivity, minimize environmental impacts, and fundamentally alter decision-making. New discoveries and their applications are changing how business is done in the global food and fiber marketplace. Public-sector research has been at the heart of the nation’s response to challenges to its food, fiber, and natural resources. The predicted addition of 3 billion people to the world’s population over the next 30 years—a 50% increase—could have adverse economic and social effects, especially in the food and housing sectors. The increasing population could have major effects on the world’s limited supply of arable land and cause substantial environmental degradation, including the potential for global climate change. Spinoffs from US food, fiber, and natural-resources research to the
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research developing world therefore could be even more important as population pressure intensifies. Underlying the dramatic shifts in society’s expectations of the nation’s food, fiber, and natural-resources system has been a rapidly expanding research agenda based on discoveries in chemistry and biology. Some of the exciting advances that will drive future developments in this system include Discoveries in plant and animal molecular biology, in ecosystem science, and in plant and soil chemistry and biology. Development of information technology that allows food to be tracked from producer to consumer. More information about the connection between diet and the body’s defenses against disease. Measurement of major economic relationships and their connection to institutional change and organizational structure in the food and fiber system. Genomic studies of agricultural crops, plant pests, and beneficial microbes. The National Research Council’s Committee on Evaluating the National Research Initiative believes that merit-based peer-reviewed research on such issues can have profoundly beneficial effects in the United States and the developing world. As the nation’s primary merit-based peer-reviewed research response to challenges to its system of food, fiber, and natural resources, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Research Initiative (NRI) competitive grants program should play an important role in such progress. This report summarizes the current status of the NRI and offers a number of recommendations to improve its effectiveness. This introductory chapter provides a brief overview of the history of competitive research at USDA and the NRI itself, summarizes the results of prior reviews of the NRI, briefly describes the committee’s study process, and provides a brief guide to the report. BRIEF HISTORY OF COMPETITIVE RESEARCH AT USDA The passage of the Hatch Act of 1887 established USDA as the first federal agency to sponsor extramural scientific research. A formula-based funding process based on each state’s share of total rural and farm populations permitted the establishment of USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratories in several geographic locations and annual funding to state agricultural experiment stations. This approach to funding has provided considerable flexibility at the state level to use funds to address practical food and fiber problems and to build and maintain the local research infrastructure. Although formula funds have provided little support of fundamental research (research having no immediate application—see discussion in chapter 4), the combination of mission-oriented research, teaching, and extension in the land grant colleges provides a unique structure that rapidly transmits research results to the farm, student, and
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research consumer level and has contributed to a dramatic expansion of food and fiber output in the United States. In the last century, and particularly since World War II, a new approach to funding research developed in American universities outside the food, fiber, and natural-resources system. Funds were awarded for projects on a competitive, peer-reviewed basis rather than by geographic or economic formula. Many have cited the new approach as one of the principal reasons for the success of the research enterprise in the United States: the approach “has relied on an abiding faith in the superiority of a free market in ideas and entrepreneurial competition over top-down decision-making in ensuring the quality and efficiency of research efforts” (CED, 1998). In 1969, the secretary of agriculture asked the National Research Council to sponsor a broad-based evaluation of the food and fiber research enterprise. The resulting report (NRC, 1972) acknowledged the historical strength of US food and fiber research but found that “far too much of the research is of low scientific quality” and that “agricultural research is suffering from an inadequate interaction with the basic disciplines that underlie it.” Reasons for those deficiencies included the findings that “grossly inadequate support was given to the basic sciences that underpin agriculture” and that there was “inadequate opportunity for a free flow of ideas from the scientist to the funding source.” The National Research Council report (NRC, 1972) contained 20 recommendations to remedy those and other deficiencies in the food and fiber research enterprise, among them that USDA seek a greatly increased level of appropriations for a competitive grants program, which should include support of basic research in the sciences (biological, physical, social) that underpin the USDA mission,…available to scientists in the USDA, in land grant and non-land grant public universities or colleges, and in private universities or colleges, institutes, and other research agencies,…administered in such a way that research proposals are subjected to evaluation by peer panels,…[and funded to] approximate 20% of the USDA’s research budget. [Pp. 49–50] Five years later, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) reiterated the need for a competitive grants program for food and fiber research in its report Organizing and Financing Basic Research to Increase Food Production (OTA, 1977), and Congress provided authorization for competitive research grants in the 1977 farm bill. That legislation established the USDA Competitive Research Grants Office (CRGO) and provided $15 million to start the program. From 1977 to 1989, the competitive grants program slowly expanded from $15 million to about $40 million per year. In its 1989 report Investing in Agricultural Research, the National Research Council (1989) called for expanding CRGO into the NRI, with a proposed funding increase to $500 million. The Research Council report argued that a healthy NRI was necessary to address the three major issues facing US agriculture: its competitiveness, food safety, and environmental quality. The report justified its recommendation for increased funding on the basis that
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research (1) The pervasive needs and problems require large amounts of new knowledge and technology for their resolution. (2) Agricultural research provides a high return on investment. (3) The agricultural research system, as presently funded, is unable to provide the necessary financial support for the quality, amount, and breadth of science and technology necessary to address the problems [P. 5]. Congress responded in the 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act (FACTA) by expanding the competitive grants program into the new National Research Initiative, authorized to spend up to $500 million within 5 years (relevant sections of 1990 FACTA are reproduced in appendix A). The NRI was initiated in FY 1991 with an appropriation of $73 million. In later years, the appropriations fell far short of the authorized levels (see chapter 6). FACTA called for four types of competitive grants: Single-investigator grants awarded to support a single scientist or coinvestigators working in the same discipline. Multidisciplinary team grants awarded to support collaborating scientists in two or more disciplines focusing on basic research. Multidisciplinary team grants awarded to support collaborating scientists conducting applied research, with technology transfer a major component of all such grant proposals. Institutional strengthening grants awarded to support an institution for the improvement of its research, development, technology-transfer, and education capacity through the acquisition of special research equipment and the improvement of agricultural education and teaching. In authorizing appropriation of funds for the NRI, Congress stipulated distribution to categories of grants as follows: in each fiscal year, 30% for fundamental and applied multidisciplinary work; at least 20% for mission-linked systems research; and at least 10% for strengthening grants and awards to faculty at small and middle-sized institutions that have not been successful in their quest to obtain competitive grants. Mission-linked research is more applied and provides scientific understanding needed to solve current, identified problems of importance to food, fiber, and the environment. Mission-linked research can provide information and technology that is transferable to users and which can be related to a product, process or practice. With respect to strengthening grants, no more than 2% of the appropriated funds can be used for equipment grants. The overhead rate for the grants would be 14 percent.1 No more than 4% of the fiscal year appropriation can be used by the secretary of agriculture for costs of administering the NRI. 1 Congress increased the overhead rate from 14% to 19% in FY 2000 in the Agricultural, Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research NRI ORGANIZATION The NRI is in the Competitive Research Grants and Awards Management Division of the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). The NRI is governed by its Board of Directors, which consists of the administrators of all the USDA intramural research agencies and the under secretary for research, education, and economics, who is the board chair. The NRI has six divisions organized according to the six mandated programs authorized by Congress: Animal, Plants, Food and Nutrition, Marketing and Trade, Natural Resources and Environment, and Food Processing. Program directors are the responsible scientific staff, and rotating managers are recruited from the research community to administer NRI review panels. A more detailed description and analysis of NRI’s organization are provided in chapter 6. The NRI program description is drafted each year by the chief scientist and scientific staff; it is guided by the authorizing legislation and appropriation level and based on user-workshop reports, advisory committees, suggestions from panel members, and priority-setting documents, such as OTA and National Research Council reports (see chapter 4 for a more detailed discussion of priority-setting at the NRI). The resulting request for proposals is published in the Federal Register and distributed widely within the scientific community. PRIOR REVIEWS OF THE NRI The only prior fully external review of the NRI has been the 1994 Research Council report by the Board on Agriculture, Investing in the National Research Initiative. That report stated that “the board believes that it is yet too soon to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the NRI, its program areas, and the benefits from the research it has supported. Although early results are indeed encouraging the NRI is only now on its fourth granting cycle.” The report went on to indicate, however, that “today, the board finds that the NRI has yet to reach the potential envisioned for it” owing in large part to low funding, which had restricted the number and size of grants. As stated in the preface to the report, “ultimately, the board found the rationale for the establishment and vigorous expansion of the NRI more compelling than ever.” An overview of the NRI was published in BioScience in 1996 by A.Kelman and R.J.Cook (1996), former NRI chief scientists. They noted that six research subjects in which major scientific breakthroughs had occurred had been targeted initially for support by the CRGO, the NRI’s predecessor, including plant-pest interactions, plant and animal genetic mechanisms, human nutrition, and animal diseases. The concentration of scientific advances now forthcoming in these and related subjects reinforces the importance of sustained support for research.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research STUDY PROCESS In 1997, USDA asked the National Research Council Board on Agriculture (now the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources) to conduct an independent assessment of the NRI program. Specifically, USDA asked the Research Council to: perform a retrospective assessment of the quality and value of research funded by the program; determine whether the science and technology priorities in the major NRI programs are defined appropriately; assess how NRI activities complement other USDA programs, those of other federal agencies, and state programs in the private sector; and recommend the nature and content of changes for the future. The Research Council appointed a 14-member committee in early 1998 to carry out this study. To respond to USDA’s four-point charge, the committee gathered impressions and systematic data on the performance of the NRI. It conducted a series of surveys and interviews and solicited testimony from several constituent groups. Former chief scientists, deans and directors of land grant and other universities, and recipients of NRI grants, and others were included in mail surveys as a first comprehensive effort to assess the functioning of the NRI. In addition, the committee devoted a full day to receiving testimony from interested stakeholder2 groups. Every effort was made to gain the views of individuals and groups that had had contact with the NRI and were therefore knowledgeable about its activities. The committee found a great deal of consistency in findings from the survey, interviews with the chief scientists, and testimony presented by stakeholders at the public workshop. OVERVIEW OF REPORT This report summarizes the results of the committee’s analysis. Chapter 2 summarizes the value of food, fiber, and natural resources-research to the United States, focusing on economic contributions and rates of return of food and fiber research. The committee’s analysis of the quality, value, fairness, relevance, and responsiveness of the NRI competitive grants program is presented in chapter 3. Chapter 4 presents the committee’s analysis of the role and scope of the NRI, including its scientific objectives, its value in training and education, and its complementarity with other research activities. The committee’s analysis of NRI’s priority-setting process and its research priorities is given in chapter 5. The committee’s analysis of organizational and funding issues is given in chapter 6. Chapter 7 presents the committee’s recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the NRI program. Additional supporting materials are found in appendixes A through I. 2 The term stakeholder is used in this report to refer to all individuals and organizations that have an interest in the operations and outcomes of the NRI.