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National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research
The committee recommends that the NRI Web site be more readily accessible to allow the location of research projects and results with the use of issue-oriented key words and technical terms that are accessible and understandable to all stakeholders.
A number of recommendations reflect directly on the NRI’s ability to reach both traditional and new stakeholders. But the needs for transparency, access to the current research agenda, and documentation of past outcomes suggest a substantial expansion in communication strategy. A Web site could be linked to nontechnical summaries, technical abstracts, impact statements, and publications and to a catalogue of current and past funded projects. Such data and communication could be maintained for 10 years to build a timely, comprehensive, and searchable record of research impacts generated by NRI funding.
PRIORITY SETTING AND ORGANIZATION
The committee has concluded that the priority-setting process of the NRI needs substantial revision. The committee found that parts of the process used by the NRI staff seem unstructured, appear to be unevenly administered across NRI divisions, and are not explicitly linked to the goals and other strategic planning elements of the Research, Education and Economics Mission Area. Changes in program areas and priorities appear to have occurred primarily in response to the urging of vocal stakeholders rather than as the result of a deliberative priority-setting process. Mechanisms are not well established to evaluate the effectiveness of NRI-funded research as time passes and progress occurs or to delineate how key research outcomes correlate with guiding research goals. The priorities of the NRI do not appear to be linked closely with the priorities of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the Economic Research Service (ERS), perhaps because the potential cross-functional nature of present research programs is not fully appreciated in either the ARS or NRI administration.
The committee believes that an improved priority-setting process should involve independent input from scientists and informed members of the public. The priority-setting process also should allocate more of the NRI’s funds by issue, not by research category. The committee believes that changes in the NRI’s organization need to be made. Most important, USDA needs to find a way to enhance the position of extramural research in USDA and to encourage NRI priority-setting to reflect national priorities more clearly.
The committee offers the following recommendations to improve the priority-setting in and the overall effectiveness of the NRI. Other solutions are possible; ultimately it will be up to USDA, and possibly Congress, to decide how best to address these problems.