(NRI). The $1.6 billion that USDA spends on research through non-NRI programs is distributed noncompetitively through intramural research grants to USDA staff (which can include cooperative agreements with land grant universities and other organizations), formula funds to state agricultural experiment stations, and special grants for targeted initiatives and direct grants to states. This allocation system does not in itself necessarily reduce the quality or relevance of research, but it runs counter to practices at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and to the general direction of most federal research practices for assessing research quality and relevance.
The NRI is the nation’s primary merit-based peer-reviewed research response to challenges to its system of food, fiber, and natural resources. The potential for disease transfer between animals and humans; the use of crops as substitute sources of petroleum-based products; the advent of nutraceuticals (specific foods for the prevention or treatment of disease); preparation for and prevention of biologic terrorism; the environmental impacts of farming, food-processing, and forestry; and the improvement of the vitamin and mineral content of widely grown grains are just a few examples of important emerging research issues directly relevant to USDA’s mission. Merit-based peer-reviewed research on such issues could have profoundly beneficial effects in the United States and the rest of the world, especially in developing countries.
Competitive merit-based peer-reviewed grants at USDA were first authorized by Congress in 1977. Congress provided $15 million to start the program and mandated that it be open to any researcher who would submit a grant application. From 1977 to 1989, the program grew to $40 million per year. In 1989, the National Research Council called for expanding competitive grants in a new program with proposed annual funding of $550 million. Congress responded in the 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act by authorizing annual spending of up to $500 million on a new competitive grants program within 5 years. Congress initiated the NRI in FY 1991 with an appropriation of $73 million. Annual funding for the NRI was increased to about $100 million in FY 1992 and remained at or near this level through FY 1998. In FY 1999, the NRI budget was increased to $120 million. Since its inception, the NRI has functioned as a pilot program to support high-quality research related to the nation’s food, fiber, and natural-resources system.
The NRI is in the Competitive Research Grants and Awards Management Division of USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). It is governed by a Board of Directors that comprises the