A third important factor related to a program’s responsiveness is how the program deals with the inherent tradeoff between the number of proposals funded and the average funding provided for each grant. NRI program staff have expressed a resistance to increasing grant size because such increases would require a decrease in the number of researchers receiving any support (assuming no increase in the program’s budget). As a result, individual award amounts currently average 60% of requested amounts. NRI data show a decline in proposal submissions in recent years, which could be a result of growing doubts about the program’s viability (see survey results in appendix C). The committee discusses that issue in more detail in chapter 6 as part of its analysis of NRI funding.
A successful grants program contains elements of value, relevance, quality, fairness, and flexibility. The committee finds that the proposals to the NRI and the research conducted by scientists who received NRI grants are both 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. Documentation of successfully completed projects and their use and application was factored into the committee’s assessment, as were the proportion of applications funded and successful renewal rates.
The committee believes that the NRI could improve its record by documenting the value of research funded. The NRI does not keep a definitive record of patents and publications that result from NRI research. Nor is there a running evaluation of originality and significance of current applications and renewals. Although the committee has found based on its surveys that funded applications are of high quality, the NRI lacks a tracking system of critical factors needed for self-evaluation or for effective reporting of research accomplishments to outside groups, which would create a feedback system to establish value.
The committee views the NRI as a model of merit-based peer-reviewed research in USDA. Because it uses a competitive review process to rank proposals, however, the NRI remains outside the mainstream USDA culture of formula funding.
Through conscientious stewardship, the NRI has been successful in generating fundamental and applied research and fostering the development of future scientists with strong backgrounds in food and fiber. The NRI program is, however, not as responsive or flexible as it could be. Proposal submissions have declined in recent years, owing in part to concern over the viability of the program and in part to the program’s resistance to increase the size of grants because such an increase would come at the cost of supporting fewer researchers.