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.


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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