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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research
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.