Scientific research and the application of discoveries through extension and education programs have enabled remarkable advances in agricultural and food production in the last 100 years (Pardey and Beddow, 2013). Future discoveries and extension and education programs will continue to strengthen the foundation of the nation’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. The knowledge and discoveries that drive innovations and technological advances require fundamental research. Applied and translational research uses the resulting concepts and knowledge to solve problems. In other words, applied research operates within the framework of knowledge provided by fundamental research, and extension helps to transform the products of research—both fundamental and applied—to improve agricultural production, farm income, environment, health, and the quality of life of consumers and producers. Skilled and creative researchers, educators, and extension specialists are necessary to carry out those functions and to address challenges faced by the agricultural and food sectors.
The mission of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is to “provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management” (USDA, 2014). USDA has intramural and extramural research programs to address challenges in those areas. Through its National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), USDA has
implemented the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) as its flagship competitive grants program.1 AFRI is charged with
funding research, education, and extension grants and integrated research, extension, and education grants that address key problems of national, regional, and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of agriculture, including farm efficiency and profitability, ranching, renewable energy, forestry (both urban and agroforestry), aquaculture, rural communities and entrepreneurship, human nutrition, food safety, biotechnology, and conventional breeding. Providing this support requires that AFRI advances fundamental sciences in support of agriculture and coordinates opportunities to build on these discoveries. This will necessitate efforts in education and extension that deliver science-based knowledge to people, allowing them to make informed practical decisions (USDA NIFA, 2012).
Four years after the AFRI program was created, USDA requested in 2012 that the National Research Council convene a committee of experts to conduct an independent assessment of the program. The committee was charged to examine the quality and value of research funded, the prospects for the program’s success in achieving established goals and outcomes, the program’s role in advancing science in relation to other research and grants programs within USDA, and the program’s complementarity with R&D programs in other federal agencies. The statement of task is provided in Box 1-1.
Approach to the Statement of Task
The National Research Council convened a committee of 16 persons who were working or had worked in academic and nonprofit institutions, federal agencies or state government, industry, and agricultural production. (See Appendix A for committee membership and biographies.) Members collectively have extensive experience in management of competitive grants, program review, grant application and review, and assessment of return on investments. Thus, the perspectives of grant funders, recipients, researchers, and users of the products of research were represented on the committee.
The committee conducted its assessment of the AFRI program based on members’ expertise and on information collected from multiple sources. The extensive literature on the role of research and competitive grants
1The AFRI program is the flagship competitive grants program within USDA, but USDA also has other competitive grants programs, such as the Small Business Innovation Research Program and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative.
An NRC committee will perform an independent assessment of the AFRI program, including the quality and value of research funded by the program and the prospects for its success in meeting established goals and outcomes.
The assessment will:
• Examine the value, relevance, quality, fairness, and flexibility of AFRI.
• Consider whether NIFA funding mechanisms, including the process of setting annual funding priorities, the shift to five NIFA challenge areas, and the balance between challenge area grants and foundational program grants, are appropriate for meeting AFRI’s desired goals and outcomes.
• Compare NIFA’s decision to fund fewer, higher-dollar and longer-term grants through AFRI to the former National Research Initiative (NRI) approach of funding more, lower-dollar grants, in terms of achieving desired outcomes. Include an exploration of the relationship between the length of grants and their effectiveness in terms of outcomes.
• Examine indications of whether AFRI is achieving its stated goals and outcomes. Include in these considerations how well AFRI facilitates the integration of research, extension, and education; supports food production efforts; balances fundamental and applied investments; increases foundational knowledge while facilitating translational research; and contributes to preparing the future scientific workforce.
• Identify measures of the effectiveness and efficiency of AFRI’s operation, from requests for applications and the panel review process (including the effectiveness of virtual grant review panels relative to face-to-face panels), to the awarding of grants.
• Evaluate the diversity of grant recipients and institutions that participate in the grants program, and examine the methods NIFA uses to facilitate the participation of a diversity of individuals and institutions (public and private, land-grant and non-land grant, minority).
The study also will examine AFRI’s role in advancing science in relation to other research and grant programs inside of USDA (capacity and formula grants) as well as how complementary it is to other federal R&D programs, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy, including the effectiveness of past joint-agency grant solicitations.
The study committee will prepare a report of its assessment. In addition to its findings and conclusions, the committee will identify aspects of the implementation of AFRI that could improve how it functions and its effectiveness in meeting its goals and outcomes. The committee will not make recommendations about funding levels for AFRI; however, it may draw conclusions about the level of scientific effort supported by AFRI and the adequacy of that effort in meeting the initiative’s goals.
for research in accelerating progress in the agricultural enterprise is cited throughout the report. In addition, the committee gathered information from individuals who contributed to the conceptualization and implementation of NIFA and AFRI, government agencies, professional societies, and grantees of AFRI (see Appendix B on Presentations to the Committee). To assess effectiveness of the program operations, the committee solicited information from NIFA staff about the grant management processes. Data on grants awarded since the inception of AFRI from 2009 through the 2012 fiscal year (the most recent year for which data were available at the time of the study) were solicited to explore the relationship between resource input and early outputs. In addition, the committee used a Web-based questionnaire to solicit input broadly from researchers, academic and extension leaders, reviewers, and users and beneficiaries of AFRI (see Appendix C and D). The input collected online was not used in a statistical or quantitative analysis, thus the committee did not draw any conclusions from the comments it received. Rather, the comments provided insights into whether the committee had overlooked any aspect that needed to be examined in its review. Multiple sources of information were considered in drawing conclusions in this report.
Scope of the Review
The committee has drawn conclusions about the scientific effort supported by AFRI and the adequacy of that effort in meeting the initiative’s goals. The committee did not evaluate the quality of individual research grants but broadly evaluated the AFRI program. In reviewing the AFRI program, the committee focused its evaluation on AFRI and did not review USDA’s entire research, extension, and education portfolio in detail, nor did it conduct a comparison of AFRI with other USDA programs (intramural and extramural) and funding mechanisms (formula and competitive grants). Such an assessment of the role and importance of competitive funds relative to formula grants was beyond the scope of this study.
Agriculture is a unique biological undertaking that nourishes people and makes substantial contributions to a country’s economic well-being. The continued demand for a robust and broad knowledge base in the agricultural and food sectors is driven by unprecedented worldwide demographic changes, steadily increasing worldwide aspirations for improved quality of life, contemporary and future threats that arise from natural-resource scarcity (such as threats created by limitations of land and water availability, the use of nonrenewable energy resources, and climate change),
and challenges posed by the desire to ensure food quality and safety (NRC, 2010b). Sustaining and adding to the robust knowledge base require constant renewal through innovations and increases in foundational knowledge to meet diverse human needs and adapt to ever-changing global conditions (World Bank, 2010). To meet those diverse needs, the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (the 2008 Farm Bill; see Appendix E) outlined six high-priority areas for AFRI to address: (1) plant health and production and plant products; (2) animal health and production and animal products; (3) food safety, nutrition, and health; (4) renewable energy, natural resources, and environment; (5) agriculture systems and technology; and (6) agriculture economics and rural communities. The agricultural and food sectors are quite diverse, and the six high-priority areas cover many but not all of the issues facing agriculture and food in the United States.
Plant Health and Production and Plant Products
Healthy, productive plants are essential for meeting future demands for food, feed, fiber, and other plant-based products; minimizing post-harvest losses; and sustaining local, regional, and global economies (Flood, 2010). That the importance of plant diseases is not new is illustrated by the impact of the Irish potato famine in the middle of the 19th century. Global food trade and continuing changes in our biological environment bring constant threats of new diseases, such as wheat stem rust (Njau et al., 2010) and soybean rust (Schneider et al., 2005). Their cost can be staggering; for example, citrus greening, caused by Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus (Halbert and Manjunath, 2004), is estimated to have led to losses of $9.3 billion—just in Florida (NRC, 2010a). Protecting crops from insects and from diseases caused by microorganisms, viruses, and nematodes is a major factor in sustaining crop yield and productivity. Pathways to plant protection include exploring natural variations found in crop germplasm and wild relatives; monitoring the emergence of pests, diseases, and weeds that are resistant to present crop-management practices; using genetics and genomics methods to identify resistance traits in crops; and using conventional crop breeding and modern biotechnological approaches to develop new resistant varieties (Enserink et al., 2013).
Animal Health and Production and Animal Products
Livestock and poultry health, production, and efficiency have advanced substantially over the last six decades and provided lower-cost, higher-quality foods for U.S. consumers and export markets. Even with those successes, there are opportunities for further improvements in health, welfare, and productivity through new technologies in genetics, nutrition, materials
science, and biomedical technology that will sustainably provide safer food products for human consumption and enhance animal well-being. Emerging and re-emerging diseases that are transmissible between humans and animals (zoonotic diseases) by direct contact or through food and water remain important concerns because of the potential magnitude of their adverse effects on the economy and consumer health. Complicating that health threat is the potential for pathogens to cycle between domestic animals and wildlife. Environmental issues stemming from confined feeding operations have led to groundwater and surface-water contamination. Overuse of antibiotics has been associated with a rise in antibiotic resistance and calls for alternative means of preventing the resulting health threats in animals and people (Kennedy, 2013). The recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 and concerns over environmental quality underscore the importance of these issues to the general public.
From 2000 to 2008, foodborne diseases (caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites) led to about 48 million cases of illness, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States (Scallan et al., 2011a,b). In that same time period, the annual cost of foodborne diseases was estimated to be as much as $51–78 billion (Scharff, 2012). However, the reported costs only reflect the 9.6 million cases caused by 31 known organisms, or about one-fifth of the cases estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The remaining 38.4 million cases are caused by unspecified agents that are unidentified because of weaknesses in surveillance and the lack of diagnostic tests to identify causal agents and for other reasons (Scallan et al., 2011a). Ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply is also complicated by the increase in food imports.
Scientific studies of food safety generally call for better understanding of the ecology, toxicology, epidemiology, and impact of foodborne diseases; for improved pathways and protocols for reducing or preventing food contamination as products make their way from farm to table; and for improvement in the ability to detect contamination when it occurs. These recommendations remain challenging. For example, the use of sophisticated molecular methods not only allows for rapid pathogen detection in humans, food, and the environment but provides useful information that helps to link human illnesses during disease outbreaks, to identify sources of contamination, and often to prevent recurrence.
Nutrition and Health
Diets and disparities in food availability and accessibility affect human health and social and economic development (Bloom et al., 2011; WHO,
2013). Most deaths worldwide are now due to noncommunicable diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes), and implementing dietary improvements can have profound effects on health (Hill et al., 2009; Lazarou et al., 2012; NRC, 2013b). Health-related concerns are also related to the disconnect between domestic agricultural production and the dietary patterns promoted by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (USDA and DHHS, 2010). Current U.S. domestic food production cannot support consumption patterns aligned with the guidelines. Total vegetable, total fruit, and milk or milk alternatives meet only half the levels required by recommended consumption patterns (Krebs-Smith et al., 2010), while calories from solid fats, sugars, and alcohol are produced in abundance. Although total meat and grain production is sufficient to meet recommended intakes, the supply of whole grains falls short of recommendations (Krebs-Smith et al., 2010). Poor accessibility of healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods has been linked to increased risks of such diseases as obesity (Hilmers et al., 2012). Challenges for food and agricultural research, education, and extension programs include how best to support dietary guidelines through agricultural production research and an improved understanding of nutrient physiology and consumer behaviors related to diet and health.
Renewable Energy, Natural Resources, and the Environment
Increasing the use of renewable energy is one of several alternatives to U.S. dependence on fossil energy and petroleum-based fuels and to emission of greenhouse gases (NAS-NAE-NRC, 2009a,b, 2010; NRC, 2013a). Agriculture (including crop and forest resources) is a major supplier of biomass; research-based innovations are necessary to produce large quantities in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. The annual production of well over a billion tons of biomass from forest and agricultural resources by 2030 has been shown to be feasible (DOE, 2011), especially with improved science and technology that could flow from enhanced research. Agricultural research also plays an important role in developing bioproducts that could reduce the country’s reliance on a host of other petroleum-based products, from biodegradable plastics to fertilizers (White House, 2012; Vaneeckhaute et al., 2013). Adjusting agricultural production and marketing realities to future changes in crop-based bioenergy markets and other emerging bioeconomies will entail substantial changes in a host of arenas that will require biological, agroecological, and economic research to support the required adjustments (NRC, 2010b, 2011, 2012) and the policies under which the changes take place (NRC, 2011).
Environmental stewardship is critical for maintaining the quantity and quality of the land and water resources on which food and fiber production depends. Conservation tillage, cover cropping, and technologies for
efficient water use and reuse could reduce resource demands and improve the environmental sustainability of agricultural production. “Performance and adoption of many of those practices could be further improved by additional biophysical, social, and economic research” (NRC, 2010b, p. 8). Discoveries and technological innovations also could result in dramatic improvements in the productivity and environmental resilience of biologically based food and agricultural production systems.
Agriculture Systems and Technology
Agriculture takes place in the context of a nested set of bioeconomic systems, starting with the biological and physical systems of crops, livestock, forests, soil, water, and climate. Harnessing those natural resources is accomplished through a variety of processes, tools, and technologies (Drinkwater, 2002). Producers often select tools and approaches in response to both natural constraints and social and economic forces generated by the broader food system. Collective decisions by producers have their own effects on natural and social systems. The scientific study of the interplay of elements within these systems is critical for the sustainability of agriculture as it sheds light on ways to optimize the production of multiple social goods (NRC, 2010b).
Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities
The changing global structure of markets—both production and consumption markets—affects rural economies as domestic and international markets are increasingly intertwined. The benefits of understanding and increasing access to such markets by producers and consumers are highlighted in Frontiers of Agricultural Research: Food Health, Environment and Community (NRC, 2003) and reiterated in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. One summary statement captures the situation for rural development, which still applies today: “Understanding the roles of social and human capital, entrepreneurism, and leadership in building successful rural communities constitutes a basic social science frontier” (NRC, 2003, p. 54).
Similarly, issues of food access and security and of food consumption patterns and diet have direct implications for nutritional health and obesity. The same 2003 National Research Council report called for more research on the economics of both and on optimizing the benefits of new technologies by understanding risk-management and decision-making processes at the farm and market levels. Informing the public and other stakeholders on the organization, design, and social processes of markets requires community-based models of innovation, testing, and application. The knowledge
gained and the outreach efforts that follow could inform and influence public investment and policies that affect rural areas.
Talent Development and Scientific Workforce Needs
Through fellowship programs and student and postdoctoral support of research grants, USDA has enabled the preparation of researchers for the private and public sectors to address agricultural production, food processing, marketing, forestry, veterinary medicine, food safety, nutrition, and other subjects. That function remains relevant. A 2000 National Research Council report evaluating the National Research Initiative (NRI), the predecessor of AFRI, recommended that the “NRI continue to emphasize its mission of training and education” (NRC, 2000). Other National Research Council reports have argued for more trained scientists to provide increased forestry research and veterinary medicine capacity for the nation (NRC, 2002, 2013c). Furthermore, a 2012 report on agricultural preparedness issued by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) took a forceful position for building capacity. To meet the need for a diverse and competent scientific workforce on agricultural and food issues, PCAST recommended an expansion of “a competitively awarded program for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers at a level of $180 million per year for at least 5 years.” Although the PCAST goal has not been attained, a critical theme that echoes throughout those reports is that a robust workforce is essential if the United States is to face predictable and unpredictable challenges and opportunities in the food and agricultural sectors, especially given the aging population of U.S. agricultural scientists (Pardey et al., 2013).
Knowledge Transfer and Innovation
As fundamental research programs of federal agencies and state partners make new discoveries and enhance understanding in food and agriculture, effective knowledge transfer and dissemination approaches are becoming more sophisticated and complex. In addition to traditional classroom and laboratory-based education and training, policies and organizational structures have been put into place to speed the diffusion of knowledge and the adoption and commercialization of innovations. They include many legislative initiatives, not least among them the Patent and Trademark Act Amendments of 1980 (known as the Bayh–Dole Act), which established the general right of university recipients to apply for patents on innovations arising from most federally funded research, and the National
Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995 that granted CRADA (cooperative research and development agreement) operators the right of first negotiation for an exclusive license for a prenegotiated field of use of any innovation developed under the agreement (Alston et al., 2010). In 1997, the National Science Foundation added a requirement of “measure-able societal impacts” to its criteria for proposal evaluation. In 2006, the National Institutes of Health established its translational science programs. Translational efforts include applications, licensing, start-up of new ventures, development of prototypes, publications, patent applications, and extension of knowledge to users by multiple methods.
Supporters of such efforts have been inspired by the nearly century-long successful record of the Cooperative Extension Service, a federal, state, and local county partnership. Rather than in the classroom and laboratory, extension-based education takes place on farms, in homes, at business sites, and in various other community locations, both virtually and face-to-face. Extension programs currently extend knowledge about agriculture, food safety, consumer economics, financial literacy, nutrition and health, environmental quality, natural-resource management and sustainability, and climate variability through a network that has suffered funding decreases in the last 20 years (APLU, 2010). Even in the face of such retrenchment, extension remains an integral part of a food and agricultural system required to translate new knowledge to enhance economic success and improve consumer well-being.
Chapter 2 describes the research and development landscape for food and agriculture and the role of AFRI in addressing critical issues in food and agriculture. Chapter 3 discusses the value of the AFRI program and its role in advancing science in relation to other research programs in USDA and competitive grants programs administered by other federal agencies. It also describes the evolution of the USDA competitive grants programs and briefly describes the scope of AFRI and its approach to funding. Chapter 4 illustrates how the research output from AFRI-funded research could be assessed and discusses information to be collected for future outcome assessments. Chapter 5 examines program-management pre-award processes (e.g., requests for applications), the grant-review process, the awarding of grants, and the post-award processes of the AFRI program. It also discusses the effectiveness of AFRI’s operation and flexibility on the basis of the grant-management practices. Chapter 6 provides the committee’s overall conclusions and recommendations related to its Statement of Task.
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