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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research
organizational and funding issues. In adopting this expanded charge, the committee therefore has discussed a number of organizational and funding issues and has offered recommendations to help achieve the original goals for this program and to give it greater visibility within, and external to, USDA.
STATUS OF THE NATIONAL RESEARCH INITIATIVE
The committee found the NRI to have financed high-quality scientific work within congressional guidelines. The committee also found, however, that the program is in danger of languishing. Program size, grant duration, grant size, and a low overhead allowance have led to reduced application numbers. Applicants are primarily from traditional food, fiber, and natural-resource sciences. A key goal of the program—to attract scientists from outside the traditional food complex—has not been achieved.
Furthermore, the committee found that traditional stakeholders in the NRI are losing confidence in the health and direction of the program. Uneven and opaque internal procedures, funding allocation processes, and priority-setting patterns have reduced the desirability of the program in the eyes of potential applicants in and outside the traditional food-research complex.
Finally, the location of the NRI within the USDA organizational structure suggests that the USDA and Congress place a higher priority on formula funds, special grants, and intramural research than on extramural, merit-based peer-reviewed research. Expectations of increased funding for the NRI generated by two National Research Council reports (in 1989 and 1994) and the 1990 congressional authorization have not been met. That has generated frustration in the food, fiber, and natural-resource research community and has had an adverse effect on the acceptance of the NRI as a strong research program.
The committee reiterates the extraordinary importance of public merit-based peer-reviewed research in food, fiber, and natural resources. In the committee’s opinion, past public research and current private activities cannot meet the needs that are being created by population growth, climate change, and natural-resource deterioration or the challenges related to food safety and nutrition and to the growing convergence of foods and medical research.
THE NRI’S MISSION
A successful grants program contains elements of value, relevance, quality, fairness, and flexibility. The committee found that the proposals to the NRI and the research conducted by scientists who receive NRI grants are of high quality. That finding is based on the results of the committee’s survey of applicants, awardees, administrators of land grant institutions, and industry; the views of former chief scientists and individuals from federal agencies; and the personal perspectives of committee members and their colleagues. Through conscientious stewardship, the NRI has been successful in generating fundamental and applied