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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research 4 Role and Scope of the NRI Program The role and scope of the NRI are broadly shaped by the legislative authority that established the program, which in turn was modeled closely after the 1989 National Research Council report Investing in Research: A Proposal to Strengthen the Agricultural, Food, and Environmental System. The NRI was authorized in section 1615 of the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (FACTA), which mandated a “national competitive research initiative” to be administered under the direction of the secretary of agriculture. Congress further stipulated that funds for the new program would be directed to “high priority research”, defined as “basic and applied research that focuses on both national and regional research needs (and methods to transfer such research to on-farm or in-market practice).” The research was to be directed at six primary subjects: plant systems; animal systems; nutrition, food quality, and health; natural resources and the environment; engineering, products, and processes; and markets, trade, and policy. The enabling legislation called for four types of grants: grants for principal investigators, grants for fundamental multidisciplinary teams, grants for mission-linked multidisciplinary teams, and grants for research-strengthening activities. Investing in Research identified grants in the first two categories as science-driven, that is, grants intended to advance science by supporting fundamental research relevant to food, fiber, and the environment. Grants in the second two categories were expected to be related to science and engineering
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research questions of national importance linked to more-applied problems. All types were designed to strengthen US Department of Agriculture (USDA) research efforts. In this chapter, the committee presents its views on the role and scope of NRI research within the bounds established by Congress—the NRI’s niche within federal, state, and private-sector research in the food, fiber, and natural-resources system. We begin by discussing some of the scientific objectives of the NRI, such as supporting fundamental, applied, and multidisciplinary research. We then discuss some of the NRI’s objectives related to training and education. Finally, we discuss the complementarity of the NRI to other federal research programs and the private sector. SCIENTIFIC OBJECTIVES Applied versus Fundamental Research Research programs are commonly classified as supporting either fundamental (also referred to as basic) or applied (also referred to as mission-linked) research or both. The 1995 National Research Council report Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology defined basic research as having the following characteristics: “creates new knowledge; is generic, nonappropriable, and openly available; is often done with no specific application in mind; and requires a long-term commitment”. The same report defined applied research as having the following characteristics: “uses research methods to address questions with a specific purpose; pays explicit attention to producing knowledge relevant to producing a technology or service; overlaps extensively with basic research; and can be short- or long-term”. Even though there is extensive overlap between the two types of research and the distinction between basic and applied research is often unclear (see also box 4-1), the original National Research Council proposal to establish the NRI and the enabling legislation for the program referred explicitly to the two general types. In particular, the enabling legislation required that “not less than 20% [of appropriations] shall be available to make grants for research to be conducted by persons conducting mission-linked systems research.” More recently, the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 increased the minimum for mission-linked research, requiring that “not less than 40 percent [of appropriations] shall be available to make grants for research … directly applicable to producers and agricultural production systems.” NRI annual reports show that for the period FY 1991–1999 funding for mission-oriented research ranged from 26% to 50% of total research expenditures, and the data show a monotonic increase of about 4 percentage points per year in research perceived to be “mission-oriented” over this period. NRI stakeholders seem to recognize the value of the NRI program in supporting both fundamental and applied research. The committee’s survey shows that the NRI is widely perceived to be USDA’s premier basic-research program, whereas USDA formula funds are perceived as supporting applied
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research research (see appendix C). In the committee’s queries of NRI awardees and unsuccessful applicants (appendix C), both groups overwhelmingly credit the program for making important contributions to fundamental and applied research, as do land grant and industry respondents. Comments from individual scientists reveal divergent opinions as to whether the program focuses too much on fundamental or applied research. These divergent views probably reflect a healthy mix of short-term and long-term application horizons. BOX 4–1 Is It Basic or Is It Applied? No a thousand times no; there does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name “applied science.” There is science and there are the applications of science, bound together as the fruit to the tree which bears it. Louis Pasteur, 1871 Although Pasteur was admirable in his emphasis on the unity of the basic and applied aspects of science, we continue to differentiate between basic and applied science in important ways. What is meant when we discuss basic and applied research, when the same study may be viewed as basic by some and applied by others? Basic and applied research can be distinguished by the intention of the work and the expected time frame for the use of the results. A study intended to solve an immediate practical problem is commonly viewed as applied; a study intended to uncover information is viewed as basic. Basic science may be considered to be curiosity-driven—knowledge is the intended product. Basic research is more long-term in perspective, and the utility of the results is likely to be more distant in time. What is viewed as applied research is intended to solve a practical problem, with a need to apply the information in the short term for a social or economic benefit. Although the intentions of basic and applied research are quite different, the results may lead to important conclusions or utility that go beyond the original intentions. Many basic studies lead to unexpected discoveries that have immediate application, and applied studies often uncover new knowledge while in pursuit of a practical objective. Serendipity occurs in both kinds of research. As recognized in the definitions of basic and applied research cited above, there often is no clear distinction between fundamental and applied science. That is especially true in food, fiber, and natural resources, where fundamental research complements applied research (for example, it is difficult to conceive of an advance in fundamental biology that might not have eventual application to the food system) and applied research often leads to further questions that fundamental research could help to answer. The committee therefore believes that it might be more useful to view NRI research along an expected-time-to-application gradient rather than to force each project to be classified as either applied or fundamental.1 Recent developments in science and technology have 1 The committee recognizes that such a change would probably require a change in the NRI authorization language, which prescribes a minimum of “mission-linked” research.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research dramatically reduced the lag between laboratory research and useful products in many cases. It is now difficult to imagine a particular research project that might not contribute to some application within 10–20 years. Placing research along an expected-time-to-application gradient would distinguish research with an expected long-term payoff from research with a shorter-term horizon. It might also allow both to be distinguished from technology transfer (the movement of information from the public to the private sector) or product development. A technology-transfer or extension component might thus be encouraged for many projects other than those tagged “applied”, and the extension community could be connected more directly to the research enterprise. The committee does recognize that a potential negative effect of viewing NRI research along an expected-time-to-application gradient is the possibility that resources would be focused predominantly on near-term applications likely to produce short-term results rather than on longer-term research with a potential for higher payoffs. The observed increase in NRI research perceived as mission-linked over the last 8 years might reflect such a trend. The committee believes strongly that a major emphasis of the NRI should continue to be the support of long-term, high-risk research with potential long-term payoffs—the type of research that is unlikely to be funded through other research programs in USDA, other federal agencies, or the private sector. Much of this research would be classified as fundamental in the traditional use of the term. Multidisciplinary Research Multidisciplinary research has been defined as that “conducted by a team of collaborating scientists from two or more distinct science or engineering disciplines integrated into a single plan of study” (NRC, 1989, p. 13). Multidisciplinary research has been a long-time general goal in science to maximize the output and breadth of research applications. Accomplishing effective multidisciplinary research is not easy, because most research institutions have developed cultures that reward individual disciplinary accomplishments. In addition, multidisciplinary projects are often, by their nature, more expensive than research conducted by individual researchers. From 1993 on, by law, at least 30% of the value of NRI funded grants each year must be dedicated to multidisciplinary research.2 The actual values ranged from 25%–34% from 1991 to 1994 (OTA 1995). In 1998, 43.4% of the NRI budget was defined as multidisciplinary.3 The NRI appears to have delivered on its congressional mandate. 2 Section 1615 of FACTA prescribed that “not less than 10% for fiscal year 1991, 20% for fiscal year 1992, and 30% for fiscal year 1993 and each fiscal year thereafter shall be available to make grants for research to be conducted by multidisciplinary teams.” 3 In the NRI’s analysis, it was assumed that triagency (USDA, National Institutes of Health, and National Science Foundation) research was multidisciplinary.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research TRAINING AND EDUCATION Three components of the NRI program are directly related to training and education in the broad sense. In particular, NRI funds are used to develop future scientists through the support of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, to strengthen small and medium academic institutions or institutions in USDA-EPSCoR (Experimental Program for Stimulating Competitive Research) entities, and to enhance public understanding of issues related to the nation’s food, fiber, and natural-resources system. Developing Future Scientists The NRI supports about 425 graduate students4 each year through its awards to project investigators. Responses to the surveys (see chapter 5) indicated that this aspect of the program is important and beneficial. In the words of one respondent, “many young scientists have started their career by NRI-supported research programs…. NRI funds have played a major role in training, recruiting and retaining bright scientists in US agriculture.” In fact, even with the small amount and brevity of grants, training might have become a major use of NRI funding among university researchers. The NRI supports more than 300 postdoctoral researchers each year5 including about 30 that receive direct postdoctoral fellowships.6 Information on postdoctoral researchers supported by the NRI is presented in table 4–1. Both the total award amounts and the number of postdoctoral researchers increased from FY 1992 through FY 1996, followed by a general decrease from FY 1996 to FY 1999. An important stated goal of the NRI is the training and support of young scientists—specifically, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and principal investigators who are in the initial or early stages of their scientific careers. How successful has the NRI been in accomplishing that goal, and how has the success been measured and documented? The one set of data available indicates that 5.7% of the total number of awards in 1997 went to new investigators. The range in different programs was 1.2%–7.3%. Each year, five to 14 grants, representing 0.16%–0.5% of the total number of awards, are given to postdoctoral fellows seeking their first grants (NRI Program Office, June, 1998). No other data were available from the NRI on specific training of graduate or postdoctoral students, but traditional academic approaches generally use them extensively in research. That was confirmed in the survey of grantees, in which 4 A graduate student is defined as a person pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master’s degree or doctorate. 5 A postdoctoral researcher is defined as a person who has recently received a PhD in a field of science and is receiving further training in conducting research. 6 Postdoctoral fellowships are awarded to highly promising researchers and can be used to obtain training in any research field. A fellowship is separate from research grant funds that can be used to support a postdoctoral researcher working on a specific research grant.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research TABLE 4–1 NRI Support of Postdoctoral Researchers Year No. Grants Funds Used for Supporting Postdoctoral Fellowships, $ 1992 15 1,216,000 1993 20 1,635,000 1994 28 2,218,000 1995 31 2,451,000 1996 32 2,548,000 1997 27 2,362,726 1998 24 2,125,586 1999 20 1,744,503 Source: NRI annual reports for 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999 (draft). career development of graduate students was scored by 81 of 120 respondents as greatly affected and by 21 respondents as somewhat affected by NRI grants. A similar response (71 of 105 greatly and 19 of 105 somewhat) was reported with respect to career development of postdoctoral students. Even nonrecipients of awards believed that the NRI greatly or somewhat affected graduate and postdoctoral education. The survey also indicated an overwhelming belief that the NRI contributed to development of human resources in the food, fiber, and natural-resources research systems. In general, the NRI has been successful in supporting the training of graduate students and postdoctoral scientists, given how small the program and its grants are relative to those of other agencies. Strengthening Academic Institutions in the Food and Fiber System Strengthening awards are made available to faculty of small and medium academic institutions or institutions in USDA-EPSCoR entities who have not received NRI awards during the previous 5 years. Small and medium institutions are defined as those with total enrollments of 15,000 or fewer that are not among the top 100 universities and colleges in receiving federal funds for science and engineering research. USDA-EPSCoR entities—besides the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other US commonwealths, territories, possessions and their successors—comprise states that have had a funding level from the NRI no higher than the 38th percentile based on a 3-year rolling average. In FY 1999, the NRI supported six career-enhancement awards, 44 equipment grants, 38 seed grants, and 56 standard strengthening awards (NRI Annual Report, 1999). NRI strengthening grants have had a major effect on the careers and productivity of faculty who otherwise would not have federal grant support. That is reflected by results of a survey conducted for USDA by the Oak Ridge
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Institute for Science and Education (ORISE unpublished data). The results of the survey are presented in table 4–2. The contributions of standard strengthening grants or equipment grants to institutional teaching and research programs include the development of new courses; the initiation of additional research programs or emphases; the acquisition of complementary equipment; the establishment of new research centers and laboratories; an increase in the quality of teaching related to food, fiber, and natural resources; an increase in the quality of research related to food, fiber, and natural resources; and an improved research environment. Enhancing Public Understanding The NRI maintains an Internet site for distribution of information resulting from its activities. It also distributes Research Highlights, a newsletter about research results of NRI-sponsored research that has been published in scientific journals. The newsletter was cited favorably by the House Committee on Science (1998). The congressional report also considered the NRI Internet site as a model for other federal agencies to make their results more readily available to Congress and the public. The NRI staffs success in organizing these vehicles is in contrast with the organization’s limited resources. TABLE 4–2 Skills and Items Affected by Acquired Grant Type of Grant, % Aspect or Item Affected Equipment RCEAa Seed Strengthening Standard Acquisition of new skills and knowledge 84 100 93 91 New professional ties and linkages 61 90 73 76 Increase in number, of professional presentations 38 90 72 74 Increase in number, of scientific publications 56 70 73 77 Submission of proposals for other research funding 89 80 73 69 Improved continuity of funding 50 30 41 51 Inventions 2 10 3 4 Patents, copyrights, or licensing agreements 4 0 1 5 Professional advancement in position, rank, or salary 32 20 38 37 Recruitment or retention of students 57 30 50 51 aRCEA=research career enhancement awards. Source: Strengthening Award Program Assessment Results, ORISE 1997; unpublished data.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research COMPLEMENTARITY Complementarity refers to the degree to which NRI activities complement similar activities conducted by others in industry and in other federal and state agencies and programs. Complementarity also includes the extent to which the NRI reaches out to other federal and state agencies, academe, and the private sector. Complementarity—rather than isolation or duplication—is necessary and desirable for adding value to research conducted within single programs, for ensuring that overall research funds are used efficiently, and for providing a clearer path between basic research and its application. The committee provides here a brief overview of some of the research programs in USD A, other federal and state agencies and programs, and industry that complement the NRI. The research programs described should be viewed as illustrative examples, not as a comprehensive compilation of all complementary programs in the federal, state, and private sectors, which was not possible given the time and funding constraints of this study. Other USDA-Funded Research Programs USDA supports research on food, fiber, and natural resources through a number of research programs—inside and outside USDA—that complement the NRI. For example, three USDA agencies conduct intramural research on different aspects of USDA’s mission: the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Economic Research Service (ERS), and the US Forest Service. USDA also provides formula funds to support research at state agricultural experiment stations, special grants to support targeted research initiatives specified by Congress, and a small amount of funds for other forms of competitive grants. Intramural Research Intramural support provides stable funding for long-term research activities that are central to the missions of the agencies. In FY 1998, funding for intramural research totaled $982 million, or 52% of the USDA research budget. Agricultural Research Service. ARS conducts basic and applied research, some of it targeted at helping USDA agencies resolve scientific and technical issues that arise as they fulfill their program responsibilities. Its research is in three national programs: Animal Production, Product Value, and Safety; Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems; and Crop Production, Product Value, and Safety. The Animal Production, Product Value, and Safety Program conducts multidisciplinary research to solve problems that threaten the security, safety, and productivity of the US food and fiber system and those arising from the interaction between animal and crop production and sustainable food and fiber systems. The Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems Program conducts multidisciplinary research to solve problems arising from the interaction between food and fiber production and the environment.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research The Crop Production, Product Value, and Safety Program conducts multidisciplinary research to solve problems that threaten the security, safety, and productivity of US food and fiber system. In carrying out its responsibilities, ARS works closely with other federal research programs and with USDA’s mission agencies that rely on technology and science to carry out their program responsibilities. Economic Research Service. ERS provides economic and other social-science information and analysis for improving the performance of agriculture and improving rural America. It collects and maintains a number of historical data series on farm type, size, and number; production and input levels; trade; effects of farm policy; and socioeconomic characteristics of rural areas of the United States. ERS also provides key statistical and analytic support to the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. US Forest Service. The US Forest Service conducts basic and applied research on the nation’s forests and on technologies useful in the manufacture of pulp and wood-based products. Research issues examined by the Forest Service include the effects of climate change on forest productivity, the behavior of fires and ecosystem response to catastrophic fires, the effects of forestry on water quality and wildlife, and methods to increase productivity through improved management. Formula Funds: State Agricultural Experiment Stations (SAESs) and Cooperative Extension Services. Formula funds provide matching dollars to the SAESs, which usually use these allocations for applied, state-specific research. Formula funds provide valuable flexibility by which experiment stations can respond to emerging problems and research issues. Formula funds are often used to support long-term research programs at the nation’s land grant universities. In FY 1998, these funds—distributed by a formula based on the size of the farm and rural population in individual states—amounted to $516 million, or about 27% of the USDA research budget. Special Grants Special grants are targeted to shorter-term research needs identified by Congress. These grants are usually a minor part of the USDA research budget, but occasionally large initiatives emerge from USDA allocation bills. Recent large initiatives include the FY 1998 appropriation for plant-genome work and two initiatives included in the Agricultural Research, Education, and Reform Act of 1998. Smaller initiatives (41 in FY 2000) are often the size of individual NRI research grants (about $200,000). In some cases, funding for special grants comes at the direct expense of the NRI budget (personal communication, NRI staff, 1998). In FY 1998, special grants accounted for $169 million, or about 9% of the USDA research base.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems. The purpose of this initiative is to support research, extension, and education activities targeted to the following research areas mandated by Congress in the Agricultural Research, Education, and Reform Act of 1998: agricultural genomics; agricultural biotechnology; food safety, food technologies, and human nutrition; new uses for agricultural products; natural-resources management, including precision agriculture; and farm efficiency and profitability. The initiative will give high priority to proposals that successfully integrate research, extension, and education or address the concerns of small and medium producers and land managers (especially in natural-resources management and farm efficiency and profitability). The goal of the initiative is to award large grants to multistate, multi-institutional, and multidisciplinary projects. The initiative has a total budget of $120 million for FY 2000. Integrated Research, Education, and Extension Competitive Grants Program. The purpose of this program is to support integrated, multifunctional agricultural research, extension, and education activities mandated by Congress in section 406 of the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998. The act specified that research grants be awarded, subject to availability of appropriations, on a competitive basis to colleges and universities (as defined in section 1404 of the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977). It specified that grants be awarded to address priorities in the US food and fiber system that involve integrated research, education, and extension activities as determined by the secretary of agriculture in consultation with the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board. Funded in FY 2000 were water quality ($13 million), food safety ($15 million), pesticide impact assessment ($4.54 million), Crops at Risk from Food Quality and Protection Act (FQPA) implementation ($1 million), FQPA Risk Mitigation Program for Major Crop Systems ($4 million), and Methyl Bromide Transition Program ($2 million), for a total program budget of $39.5 million. Other Competitive Grants in USDA The competitive research grants component of USDA includes three operating programs in addition to the NRI: the Office of Extramural Programs, the Small Business Innovation Research program, and the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Program. Each of those is administered by its own director. The NRI is by far the largest competitive grants program in USDA, accounting for 87% of the competitive grants awarded by USDA in FY 1998. The Office of Extramural Programs (OEP) provides leadership and guidance in the management of the federal assistance programs related to research, education, and extension activities supported by the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). OEP is responsible for the execution, administration, and payments of CSREES formula fluids, grants, cooperative agreements, special projects, and other federal assistance instruments to further the USDA mission.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in USDA makes grants to qualified small businesses to support research to develop advanced concepts related to scientific problems and opportunities in agriculture that could lead to public benefit. Objectives of the SBIR program are to stimulate technologic innovations in the private sector, strengthen the role of small businesses in meeting federal research and development needs, increase private-sector commercialization of innovations derived from USDA-supported research and development efforts, and foster and encourage participation by female-owned and socially and economically disadvantaged small business firms in technologic innovations. The purpose of the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants Program is to assist federal regulatory agencies in making science-based decisions about the safety of introducing into the environment genetically modified organisms, including plants, fungi, bacteria, viruses, arthropods, fish, birds, mammals, and other animals. The program accomplishes its purpose by providing scientific information derived from the risk-assessment research that it funds. Research proposals submitted to this program must address risk assessment, not risk management. Complementarity of NRI within USDA The non-NRI research activities funded by USDA illustrate two important points about the complementarity of NRI research with respect to other USDA-funded research. First, the NRI differs from most of the research funded by USDA in that it supports researchers outside USDA on the basis of a competitive, merit-based peer-review process. Most of the roughly $1.6 billion that USDA spends on research through non-NRI programs is distributed noncompetitively through intramural research grants to USDA staff, formula funds to state agricultural stations, and special grants to states for targeted initiatives and direct grants. This allocation system does not in itself necessarily reduce the quality or relevance of the research it supports, but it runs counter to practices at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and to the general direction of most federal research practices for assessing research quality and relevance. Second, although ARS focuses more on applied research than the NRI, there could be some overlap in the research conducted in-house through ARS and that funded through the NRI. The committee concludes that the NRI complements other USDA activities but that more emphasis should be placed on coordinating ARS and NRI agendas.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Other Federal Programs National Science Foundation A number of entities within the NSF Biology Directorate involve research related to food, fiber, and natural resources, including the Division of Environmental Biology (DEB), the Cluster for Systematic and Population Biology, the Cluster for Ecological Studies, the Division of Integrative Biology and Neuroscience, the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB), and the Division of Plant Genome Research. DEB supports fundamental research on the origins, functions, relationships, interactions, and evolutionary history of populations, species, communities, and ecosystems. Scientific emphases of DEB include biodiversity, molecular genetic and genomic evolution, mesoscale ecology, computational biology (including modeling), conservation biology, global change, and restoration ecology. The Cluster for Systematic and Population Biology supports research on the patterns and causes of diversity within and among populations and species. Research projects involve any group of organisms—including terrestrial, freshwater, and marine taxa—and range in subject from microorganisms to multicellular plants, animals, and fungi. Research areas are arranged in three main groups: population biology, systematic biology, and biotic surveys and inventories. The Cluster for Ecological Studies supports research on natural and managed ecologic systems, primarily in terrestrial, wetland, and freshwater habitats. Research areas include experimental, theoretical, and modeling studies on the structure and function of complex biotic-abiotic associations and the coupling of small-scale systems to each other and to large-scale systems. They are arranged in four groups: ecosystem studies, ecology, long-term ecological research (LTER), and long-term research in environmental biology. The Division of Integrative Biology and Neuroscience supports research aimed at understanding the living organism—plant, animal, microorganism—as a unit of biologic organization. Such research encompasses the mechanisms by which plants and animals develop, grow, reproduce, regulate their physiological activity, and respond to their environment; the integration of molecular, subcellular, cellular, and functional genomic approaches to understanding the development, functioning, and behavior of organisms in the laboratory and in natural settings; all aspects of the nervous system, including its structure, function, development, and integration with the physiologic and behavioral systems affected by it; factors influencing the behavior of animals in the laboratory and in the field; whole-organism approaches to physiologic ecology; and the form and function of organisms in view of their evolution and environmental interactions. MCB supports research and related activities that contribute to a fundamental understanding of life processes at the molecular, subcellular, and cellular levels. Investigator-initiated research proposals are considered in biomolecular structure and function, biomolecular processes, cell biology, and genetics. Biodiversity and biotechnology are major focal points of MCB.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research The Division of Plant Genome Research was initiated in FY 1998 as part of a national plant genome research initiative established by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The long-term goal of this program is to understand the structure, organization, and function of plant genomes important to agriculture, the environment, energy, and health. The program supports research on plant genomics and aims to accelerate the acquisition and use of new knowledge and innovative approaches to elucidate fundamental biologic processes in plants. The Hydrologic Sciences Program in the Earth Sciences Division of NSF’s Geosciences Directorate has some potential overlap with the water-quality research supported by the NRI. The program supports fundamental research on continental water processes and the global water balance. Research on the former focuses on the physical and chemical processes characterizing or driven by the cycling of continental water at all scales and on biologic processes that interact with the water cycle. Research on the latter focuses on the spatial and temporal characteristics of the water balance in the atmosphere, oceans, and continents. National Institutes of Health The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), one of 25 institutes and centers of NIH, supports research related to three interactive elements that play central roles in human health and disease: environmental factors, individual susceptibility, and age. The NIEHS mission is to reduce the burden of human illness and dysfunction with environmental causes by understanding each of those elements and how they interrelate. NIEHS achieves its mission through multidisciplinary biomedical research programs, prevention and intervention efforts, and communication strategies that encompass training, education, technology transfer, and community outreach. Although NIEHS covers a wide variety of issues, one research area directly related to the NRI’s mission is pollution related to food and fiber production. NIEHS research in this area focuses on health effects of chemicals used in food and fiber production at high concentrations and of natural materials involved in food and fiber production (such as grain dust). Department of Energy Two parts of the Department of Energy (DOE) research program that are related closely to food, fiber, and natural resources are the Division of Energy Biosciences in the Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) and the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER). Both programs are in DOE’s Office of Science. The BES Division of Energy Biosciences supports fundamental research needed to develop future biotechnologies related to energy. The supported research focuses on the biologic mechanisms occurring in plants and microorganisms that could serve as renewable resources for fuel and other
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research fossil-resource substitutes, as vehicles to restore previously disrupted environmental sites, and as potential components of industrial processes to produce new products and chemicals in an environmentally benign manner. The division supports research programs in four main areas: plant science, fermentation microbiology, extremophilic organisms, and biomaterials and biocatalysis. The mission of BER is to develop the knowledge needed to identify, understand, and anticipate the long-term health and environmental consequences of energy production, development, and use. The mission is carried out through support of peer-reviewed research at DOE national laboratories, universities, and private institutions. Two BER divisions, the Life Sciences Division and the Environmental Sciences Division, could support some research related to food, fiber, and natural resources. The BER Life Sciences Division manages a diverse portfolio of research to develop fundamental biologic information and to advance technology in support of DOE missions in biology, medicine, and the environment. Specific research areas include human genomics; ethical, legal, and social implications of genome research; structural-biology; model-organisms; microbial genome; and low-dose radiation. The BER Environmental Sciences Division funds basic research in environmental processes, global change, and other subjects. Global-change research activities related to the nation’s food and fiber system include studies to quantify sources and sinks of energy-related greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) and studies to improve the scientific basis for assessing the potential consequences of climatic changes. The latter include the potential ecologic, social, and economic implications of human-induced climatic changes caused by increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the benefits and costs of alternative response options. Interagency Programs The NRI does not usually share funding of individual projects with other agencies but does attempt to cooperate in programs that further the cause of food, fiber, and natural-resources research. Joint programs that bring together several agencies to focus on common goals use available funds effectively. Such programs also provide visibility to neglected research areas, attract scientists into new areas, and focus attention on topics of broad interest. A prime example of interagency cooperation is the Arabidopsis thaliana Genome Sequencing Project, offered to researchers as a competition several times since its development from the 1990 “Joint NSF, NIH, USDA, and DOE Agreement on Cooperation in Support of Arabidopsis thaliana Genomic Analysis”. An example of cross-agency cooperation is the Joint Program on Collaborative Research in Plant Biology (offered via a DOE-NSF-USDA partnership), whose goals are to “foster the development of creative scientists trained in interdisciplinary research, to stimulate interest in research topics that
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research need more attention, and to utilize the available funds for plant science research in the most effective manner”. More recent cooperative programs are the Terrestrial Ecology and Global Change Program (involving NSF, DOE, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, USDA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Opportunities in Metabolic Engineering Program (involving USDA, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, DOE, and NSF). In each of those programs, proposals are recommended for funding by a single interagency peer-review panel; individual agencies then sponsor the proposals most relevant to their mission. Although the NRI actively participates in cross-agency funding, it clearly follows rather than leads. No cross-agency program to date has been initiated by the NRI. The committee believes that the NRI suffers from being smaller than other agencies; this limits the amount of resources that it can contribute to cross-agency initiatives. Aside from memorandums of understanding and interagency coordination provided by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), the NRI does not have a process for establishing formal relationships with other federal agencies or for consulting and using stakeholder groups. The NRI receives advice on areas to fund from diverse sources, such as the NSTC and USDA groups, as well as from its own board of directors. However, no program is in place to consult and use natural affinity groups, such as the Farm Bureau, Grange, farm-commodity groups, agribusiness leaders, environmental interests, and the rural-development community. Complementarity of NRI with Other Federal Programs The descriptions of research areas funded by other federal agencies illustrate a number of important points about the complementarity of NRI research. There appears to be some overlap in the types of research that could receive funding through other federal research programs and which could be funded through the NRI. Two specific cases of overlap are the NSF Plant Genome Research Division and NIEHS research on agricultural pollution. Clearly, it is important for such overlapping programs to be coordinated with NRI research. Aside from the specific cases discussed above, NRI research does not appear to duplicate research conducted in other federal or state agencies substantially. Most of the other federal research programs described above could potentially support research on food and fiber issues—but the breadth of those programs suggests that research on food and fiber issues is a very small component of any of them. For example, the broad mission of NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology (to support fundamental research on the origins, functions, relationships, interactions, and evolutionary history of populations, species, communities, and ecosystems) could include some research on species that are important in the food and fiber system—but it would almost certainly support far more research on species outside the food and fiber system. Similarly, DOE’s research on global change might include some research on the
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research impact of global change on the food and fiber system, but other types of impacts would probably dominate DOE’s research in this area. It is unlikely that any of the other federal programs would support enough research on important food and fiber issues to constitute a coherent program of research on such issues. Industry and the NRI Where the science is ripe for product development and marketability, public-private partnerships will thrive. For example, there is good industry participation in genomics advisory groups. Industry scientists also participate in NRI panels, bringing their perspective to the competitive grants process. However, industry’s lack of understanding of and participation in the overall NRI program was strongly expressed in the industry survey conducted by the committee (see appendix C). Reasons included the low level of funding, long response time, and concerns about the handling of proprietary information. Industry showed interest only in the ability to use NRI grants to enhance postgraduate training, particularly in the larger industries. The committee finds that industry-NRI interaction is well below what might be fruitfully pursued. SUMMARY FINDINGS Scientific Objectives The NRI program is credited for making important contributions to fundamental and applied research. The distinction between basic and applied research often is unclear in the food, fiber, and natural-resources sector. Such research might be thought of as a continuum with short-, medium-, and long-term objectives identified in any research area. A major emphasis of the NRI should continue to be the support of long-term, high-risk research with potential long-term payoffs. Much of this research would be classified as “fundamental” research in the traditional use of this term. The NRI appears to have delivered on its congressional mandate that at least 30% of its funds be devoted to multidisciplinary research. Training and Education Training and education of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers attributable to the NRI program are substantial. Even with the small amounts and short duration of grants, training may be the major use of NRI funds among university researchers.
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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research Strengthening grants provided by the NRI program have had a major impact on the careers and productivity of faculty who otherwise would not receive federal grant support. The NRI staff has been successful in organizing several vehicles to promote public understanding of research in the food, fiber, and natural-resources area, particularly in view of the organization’s limited resources. Complementarity NRI complements other USDA activities, but more emphasis might be placed on coordinating ARS and NRI agendas. NRI does not duplicate other federal research efforts. Although the NRI actively participates in cross-agency funding opportunities to ensure complementarity of research efforts, it follows rather than leads in these efforts. The NRI suffers from being smaller than other agencies; this limits the amount of resources it can contribute to interagency initiatives. No process exists for establishing formal relationships with other federal agencies or for consulting and using stakeholder groups. Industry-NRI interaction is well below what might be fruitfully pursued.
Representative terms from entire chapter: