Numerous reports have laid out visions and goals for an agricultural research and development (R&D) program and addressed the strengths, weaknesses, and directions of U.S. agricultural R&D, extension, and education programs over several decades (USDA-REE Task Force, 2004; PCAST, 2012; NRC, 1989, 2000, 2003). Although those reports have addressed the aspirations for agricultural R&D programs, no reports have assessed what would be missing if focused publicly funded programs of agriculture and food R&D, extension, and education did not exist. Such a review and assessment would be beneficial for understanding the place of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) in the research agenda of the United States and the incremental value of such a program. To address the value of AFRI, this chapter discusses the role of a competitively funded research, extension, and education program as a complement to other USDA programs funded via other mechanisms. It then explores AFRI in relation to the extramural research programs in other federal agencies. The chapter also describes the evolution of USDA’s flagship competitive grants program, discusses the aspirations for AFRI, and describes the scope and structure of and funding for the program and
how it addresses the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (referred to hereafter as the 2008 Farm Bill1).
The committee compares AFRI with other federally funded research programs to determine AFRI’s contributions to the federal science and technology portfolio, focusing on legislative intents and mandates of each program. In a review of the program, it was beyond the committee’s scope to provide corroborating evidence from the content of AFRI-funded projects or to determine AFRI’s success in attracting research proposals that other federal agencies do not support. Empirical analysis of that nature would require methods such as keyword or other searches of AFRI project populations or samples, which would then be compared with the populations or samples of projects in other selected funding programs.
USDA has played a key role in supporting extramural research for agriculture since the passage of the Hatch Act in 1887, but its use of competitive funding as a mechanism to support extramural research began more recently (see Figure 3-1). A peer-review competitive grants program was proposed as a means of moving a publicly funded agricultural research portfolio toward the more basic end of the R&D spectrum.2 A 1989 National Research Council report stated that “there is ample justification for increased allocations for the [competitive] grants program to a level that would approximate 20 percent of the USDA’s research budget, at least one half of which would be for basic research related to agriculture” (NRC, 1989, pp. 49–50). Those recommendations were partially implemented. For
1The Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933 was enacted originally to ensure an adequate food supply by providing financial assistance to farmers and nutrition assistance to feed the hungry during the Great Depression. Since then, Congress has required that a “Farm Bill” be updated and passed every 5 years. The Farm Bill is an omnibus bill that sets national agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policies, and authorizes annual expenditures for services and programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Policies and funding for agricultural research, extension, and education are outlined in the Farm Bill, and the AFRI program was established by the 2008 Farm Bill.
2Basic research is defined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as “systematic study directed toward fuller knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts without specific applications towards processes or products in mind.” Applied research is defined also by the OMB as “systematic study to gain knowledge or understanding necessary to determine the means by which a recognized and specific need may be met.” Development is defined by the OMB as “systematic application of knowledge or understanding, directed toward the production of useful materials, devices, and systems or methods, including design, development, and improvement of prototypes and new processes to meet specific requirements.” See http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/randdef/fedgov.cfm.
example, the Competitive Research Grants Office (CRGO), the competitive granting mechanism initiated by the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 (1977 Farm Bill), was established to support fundamental research, but grants awarded through CRGO represented only about 5% of total USDA research expenditures (see Table 3-1) (NRC, 1989; OTA, 1991).
The committee that prepared the 1989 National Research Council report Investing in Research: A Proposal to Strengthen the Agricultural, Food, and Environmental System recognized the importance of agriculture to the U.S. economy and the critical role that research plays in ensuring access to an abundant and safe supply of food while maintaining and enhancing the natural-resource base used for agriculture.
CRGO was replaced in 1990 by the National Research Initiative (NRI), which was charged with “funding research, education, and extension
|Appropriated as Share of|
|Year||Authorized (millions of dollars)||Appropriated (millions of dollars)||Authorized||Total USDA Funding||Total Public Funding|
|Competitive Research Grants Office|
|National Research Initiative|
|Fund for Rural Americaa|
|Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems (IFAFS)b|
|Appropriated as Share of|
|Year||Authorized (millions of dollars)||Appropriated (millions of dollars)||Authorized||Total USDA Funding||Total Public Funding|
|Agriculture and Food Research Initiative d|
NOTE: Total USDA funding is the sum of Cooperative State Research, Extension, and Education Service–administered funds and other USDA funds and intramural USDA funding. Total public funding consists of total research spending by the state agricultural experiment stations (SAESs) plus intramural research expenditures by USDA. Total USDA and total public funding series are based on data extracted from USDA Current Research Information System data files and constitute InStePP (2013) estimates.
aFund for Rural America introduced mandatory money for research programs.
bIFAFS is a mandatory spending program, not appropriated.
cFunding of IFAFS was limited because of appropriations language, which allowed only enough funds to manage already funded projects. $30–40 million was added to the NRI to provide funds for projects intended for IFAFS.
dLack of data for total USDA and public funding for the post-2009 period.
activities to address key problems of national and regional importance in biological, environmental, physical, and social sciences relevant to agriculture, food, the environment, and communities on a peer-reviewed, competitive basis” (USDA-NIFA, 2009b). Congress authorized a total of $150 million for the NRI in FY 1991 with incremental increases up to $500 million by FY 1995. Those authorized amounts were never reached in any given year. A total of $69.2 million was committed to successful grantees in 1991 and $165.8 in 2007, less than 35% of the authorized amount (and less than 9% of total USDA funding in 2007).3
After its establishment, the NRI program was reviewed by the National Research Council two times, and that resulted in two reports: Investing in the National Research Initiative: An Update of the Competitive Grants Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (NRC, 1994) and National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural Resources Research (NRC, 2000). Both reports reiterated the recommendation in the 1989 report to increase the NRI budget to $500 million (or $550 million after adjusting for inflation) because of the role of the program in enabling producers to meet increasing food needs, provide safe foods of high nutritional quality that are affordable and accessible, and protect and enhance the natural-resource base on which U.S. agriculture relies. The 2000 report recommended that USDA increase its competitive grants support by $500 million annually on the premise that: “(1) The pervasive needs and problems require large amounts of new knowledge and technology for their resolution. (2) Agricultural research provides a high return on investment. (3) The agricultural research system, as presently funded, is unable to provide the necessary financial support for the quality, amount, and breadth of science and technology necessary to address the problems” (NRC, 2000, p. 5).
Competitive grant programs in addition to the NRI existed briefly. The Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-127) established the Fund for Rural America “to develop knowledge-based solutions for rural economic development” (USDA-NIFA, 2001). One-third of the fund was designated for a competitive grants program, and one-third was for rural development projects. The other one-third of the fund could be used for either competitive research or rural development projects at the discretion of the Secretary of Agriculture. The Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-185) established the Initiative for Future Agricultural Food Systems (IFAFS) as a competitive grants program for research, extension, and education to address a
3Here, the USDA funding total was estimated as the total of USDA intramural research spending and federal funding to USDA that is used to conduct research in the state agricultural experiment stations and other cooperating institutions.
number of critical emerging agricultural issues related to food production, environmental quality, natural-resource management, and farm income. The program gave high priority to proposals that were multistate, multi-institutional, or multidisciplinary or proposals that integrated at least two of the three aspects of research, extension, and education. Both the Fund for Rural America and IFAFS were repealed in the 2002 Farm Bill (P.L. 107-172).
The question arose of how a publicly funded competitive grants program for research, extension, and education could best serve societal interests in the U.S. agriculture and food sectors. Two prominent groups—the USDA Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Task Force and CREATE-21—addressed the question. The REE Task Force was appointed by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the request of Congress (P.L. 107-171). It evaluated the merits of establishing one or more national institutes focused on disciplines important for the progress of agriculture and food science. A report titled National Institute for Food and Agriculture: A Proposal was submitted to the Secretary in July 2004 (USDA-REE Task Force, 2004). The report identified several major scientific, economic, and national security issues faced by the nation that could be addressed through an increased focus on competitive, extramural, and fundamental research. The major agricultural issues described by the task force are similar to the major societal challenges related to agriculture raised by numerous later reports (APLU, 2006; NRC, 2009; PCAST, 2012; White House, 2012; ASPB, 2013). Selected themes that permeate those reports are reflected in the challenges addressed in Chapter 1 of the present report and illustrate the continuing broad scope of food and agriculture issues.
The REE Task Force report envisioned a strengthened and increased competitive grants program in USDA and new (as opposed to reallocated) funds to expand competitive, fundamental research but in a strengthened science-based culture in USDA. Such a culture was proposed to require an independent agency that would report directly to the Secretary of Agriculture and be roughly modeled after the structure of National Institutes of Health (NIH) competitive funding.4 The NIH model, with a director that reports to the Secretary for Health and Human Services, is based on priority-setting mechanisms that involve science-based councils that align
4NIH funding levels are significantly higher than USDA levels, with NIH receiving $30 billion for FY 2014 (NIH, 2014).
research priorities with national needs; a rigorous, strong peer-review culture and practice; a strong tradition of scientific merit-based funding decisions; consistency of review panels, funding expectations, staff support, and grants management over time; and funding of both direct project costs and full indirect costs on the basis of federally negotiated rates.
The CREATE-21 report also envisioned a strengthened competitive grants program in USDA. The Statement of Managers in the Conference Report to the 2008 Farm Bill most clearly states the goals articulated in the CREATE-21 report:
The Managers believe that NIFA [National Institute of Food and Agriculture] will be commensurate in stature with other grant-making agencies across the Federal government, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The Managers intend for NIFA to be an independent, scientific, policy-setting agency for the food and agricultural sciences, which will reinvigorate our nation’s investment in agricultural research, extension, and education (APLU, 2006).
The CREATE-21 report, which openly supported the REE Task Force report, made the case for increased competitive funding, repair of and improvement in the infrastructure of universities and institutions that do agricultural research, and strengthening of the organizational structure of competitive formula-based and intramural research programs of USDA.
The 2008 Farm Bill (P.L. 110-234) constitutes the most recent congressional attempt (as of the writing of this report) to allocate more of the federal funds for agricultural R&D by peer-reviewed competitive means. It established AFRI, which replaced the NRI. As authorized in the bill, NIFA was created and structured, at least in part, according to the recommendations in the REE Task Force and CREATE-21 reports. However, the structure and implementation of NIFA and its competitive grants program, AFRI, differed markedly in many respects from those recommendations (Box 3-1).
Recognizing the historical commitment to and value of solving the problems of agriculture, a number of reports attempted to shift the organizational culture and structures to foster innovation. The REE Task Force report (2004) explicitly called for a “new culture” in USDA, and the CREATE 21 effort also envisioned a new organizational model. Neither was formally and explicitly established by Congress, but USDA’s implementation of NIFA and AFRI is an attempt to create such a scientific envi-
The Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Task Force of USDA made 13 recommendations in response to the charge to evaluate the merits of establishing one or more national institutes focused on disciplines important for the progress of agriculture and food science. The CREATE-21 report supported many of those recommendations, but not all were adopted in the implementation of NIFA and AFRI. Some examples include the following.
PROPOSAL: The formation of a National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in USDA for the purpose of ensuring the technological superiority of American agriculture. The institute should report directly to the Secretary of Agriculture. It should be kept separate and managed differently from existing programs so that it can develop its own culture and establish its own methods of operation.
IMPLEMENTATION: The competitive, fundamental, extramural research program (AFRI) was placed with formula-funded research programs in NIFA. NIFA is not independent in USDA. The NIFA director reports to the Undersecretary of REE, who administers the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and NIFA.
ronment. The ownership of fundamental science associated with food and agriculture; its translation, extension, and dissemination; and the training of scientists by AFRI fit into that model.
Scope of the AFRI Program
AFRI encompasses some elements of the NRI, the competitive funding component of the Fund for Rural America, and IFAFS (Table 3-2). The six priority areas to be addressed by AFRI, as specified in the 2008 Farm Bill, are similar to the NRI’s priority areas. They are
• Plant health and production and plant products.
• Animal health and production and animal products.
• Food safety, nutrition, and health.
• Renewable energy, natural resources, and environment.
• Agriculture systems and technology.
• Agriculture economics and rural communities.
PROPOSAL: The mission of the competitive grants program should be to supplement and enhance, not replace, the existing research programs of USDA.
IMPLEMENTATION: AFRI replaces the NRI and has a broader scope than the NRI (see Chapter 1).
PROPOSAL: The annual budget of the competitive grants program should build to $1 billion over a 5-year period.
IMPLEMENTATION: AFRI’s budget from 2008 to 2012 ranged from $202 million to $264 million.
PROPOSAL: Mechanisms should be put into place to ensure that the science funded by the competitive grants program is of the highest scientific caliber and relevant to national needs and priorities. The mechanisms should include
— Committees of scientists who apply rigorous scientific merit review to all proposals.
— A standing council of advisers to ensure the relevance and importance of the science that the competitive grants program funds.
IMPLEMENTATION: Although AFRI applies scientific merit review to all proposals, it does not have an advisory council that serves as an interface between scientists and stakeholders and helps AFRI to link national priorities with realistic scientific opportunities (see Chapter 4 for detailed discussion).
In its first year of operation, AFRI supported research, extension, and education in the six priority areas designated in the 2008 Farm Bill. In its second year, the approach to funding was restructured so that grant funding would be under two programs: either the foundational program or the challenge-area program. Each of these programs would delineate topic areas for investigation.
The foundational program supports research or integrated projects that contribute to knowledge that is critical for meeting current and future challenges in agriculture. Like the NRI, the AFRI foundational program is investigator-driven, and its program areas correspond with the six priority areas in the Farm Bill.
The challenge-area program, as its name implies, is more mission oriented and directs grants toward societal challenges “to discover solutions to major societal problems” in four areas—food, environment, energy, and health (USDA-NIFA, 2012). The approach was formulated after release of
|Charge||Supporting fundamental research in food and agriculture||Funding research, education, and extension activities to address key problems of national and regional importance in biological, environmental, physical, and social sciences relevant to agriculture, food, the environment, and communities on a peer-reviewed, competitive basis|
• Plant sciences
• Pest science
• Animal sciences
• Human nutrition
• Wood science and forest biology
• Plant systems
• Animal systems
• Nutrition, food quality, and health
• Natural resources and the environment
• Engineering, products, and processes
• Markets, trade, and policy
|Years in operation||1977–1990||1991–2008|
|Number of awards per year||193–455||298–832|
|Fund for Rural America||IFAFS||AFRI|
|Program partly for funding competitive research to develop knowledge-based solutions for rural economic development||Funding research, extension, and education to address a number of critical emerging agricultural issues related to food production, environmental quality, natural-resource management, and farm income||Funding research, education, and extension grants and integrated research, extension, and education grants that address key problems of national, regional, and multistate 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|
• Increasing international competitiveness, efficiency, and farm profitability
• Reducing economic and health risks
• Conserving and enhancing natural resources
• Developing new crops, new crop uses, and new agricultural applications of biotechnology
• Enhancing animal agricultural resources
• Preserving plant and animal germplasm
• Increasing economic opportunities in farming and rural communities
• Expanding locally owned value-added processing
• Agricultural genome
• Food safety, food technology, and huma nutrition
• New and alternative uses and production of agricultural commodities and products
• Agricultural biotechnology
• Natural-resource management, includin precision agriculture
• Farm efficiency and profitability, including the viability and competitiveness of small- and medium-siz dairy, livestock, crop, and other commodity operations
• Plant health and production and plant products
• Animal health and production and animal products
• Food safety, nutrition, and health
• Renewable energy, natural resources, and environment
• Agriculture systems and g technology
• Agriculture economics and rural communities
|1997–2002||1999–2002||2009 to present|
|Amount authorized||$25–70 million||$150–500 million|
|Amount appropriated||$15–49 million||$73–215 million|
|Number of requests for applications (RFAs) per year||1 RFA|
|Fellowship programs||Postdoctoral fellowships integrated into all program areas and compete against other projects|
|Grant function||Single-function research||Single-function research and integrated projectsa|
SOURCES: P.L. 95-113, 101-624, 104-127, 107-172, and 110-234; USDA Current Research Information System; InSTePP (2013).
the National Research Council report A New Biology for the 21st Century (referred to hereafter as the New Biology report; NRC, 2009). That report concluded that biological research had experienced many scientific and technological advances. The reintegration of subdisciplines in biology and the collaboration between biologists and scientists and engineers in other disciplines purposefully organized to address specific societal challenges could result in significant advances, perhaps in unexpected directions. Another National Research Council report, Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, discussed the added value of an integrative, distinct, interdisciplinary approach to research in agriculture (NRC, 2010). It stated that “a holistic systems approach to research and development could identify opportunities for synergies and efficiencies that traditional disciplinary [sic] or production-focused research might miss” (NRC, 2010, p. 527).
|Fund for Rural America||IFAFS||AFRI|
|$100 million||$120 million||$700 million|
|$80 million||$120 million||$171–233 million (awarded)|
|1 foundational RFA, 1 fellowship RFA, and 5 challenge-area RFAs|
|Predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships solicited in a single RFA and compete against other fellowships only|
|National, regional, or multistate program oriented primarily toward extension programs and education programs demonstrating and supporting the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture||Priority to multistate, multi-institutional, or multidisciplinary or proposals that integrate at least two of the three aspects of research, extension, and education||Single-function research, education, or extension; and integrated projects|
|Outcome-driven||Outcome-driven and investigator-initiated|
According to the New Biology report, there are four goals within which an integrative approach could make a substantial contribution:
• “Developing plants that could be sustainably produced for food in changing environments.”
• “Understanding and maintaining ecosystem function and biodiversity under rapidly changing conditions.”
• “Developing sustainable sources of bioenergy and biofuel as an alternative to fossil fuels.”
• “Understanding individual health.”
NIFA integrated the four goals from the New Biology report and six priority areas from the 2008 Farm Bill, and transformed them into the following five challenge areas in AFRI’s requests for proposals (USDA-NIFA, 2010):
• Childhood-obesity prevention.
• Climate change.
• Global food security.
• Food safety.
• Sustainable bioenergy.
Each of the areas addresses a challenge at the systems level and is related to at least one priority area in the 2008 Farm Bill (USDA-NIFA, 2013b). For example, childhood-obesity prevention is related to nutrition and health, climate variability affects plant and animal production, global food security is closely tied to plant and animal health and production, and sustainable bioenergy is related to production and markets for biomass production for renewable energy. The challenge-area program aims to accelerate problem-solving in some focused areas by facilitating multidisciplinary research and integration of research, education, and extension.
In addition to the foundational program’s request for application (RFA) and the five challenge-area RFAs, AFRI promoted a NIFA fellowship program RFA for the first time in 2010. The program offers predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships.
Under the two program areas (foundational and challenge-area), there are five types of grants:
• Standard project grant.
• Coordinated agricultural project (CAP) grant.
• Planning and coordination grant.
• Conference grant.
• Food and agricultural science enhancement (FASE) grant.
The standard project grant and conference grant are the same as those in the NRI. The NRI funded CAPs but awarded fewer CAPs and awarded them over a shorter duration than AFRI. The FASE grants are similar to the NRI’s enhancement award. AFRI responds to sections of the 2008 Farm Bill (Appendix C) by providing such strengthening grants as sabbatical grants, equipment grants, and seed grants and fellowships to outstanding predoctoral and postdoctoral candidates. The strengthening grants of the NRI and AFRI are limited to small and middle-size or minority-serving degree-granting institutions that previously had limited institutional success in receiving federal funds. In accordance with the 2008 Farm Bill, AFRI also provides strengthening grants to State Agricultural Experiment Stations (SAESs) or degree-granting institutions that are eligible for USDA Experi-
mental Program for Stimulating Competitive Research (EPSCoR) funding and are eligible for reserved strengthening funds for research, education, extension, and integrated project grants. Each year, NIFA determines the states that are eligible for EPSCoR funding on the basis of their funding levels. The EPSCoR states have a funding level no higher than the 38th percentile of all states on the basis of a 3-year rolling average of AFRI, excluding FASE strengthening grants given to EPSCoR states and to small, middle-size, and minority-serving degree-granting institutions.
Projects funded within each grant type could be categorized as single-function research, single-function education, single-function extension, or integrated. Integrated projects would address a least two of the three functions. (See Appendix F for the different grant types and project functions funded in each program from 2009 to 2013.)
NIFA partners with other federal agencies for other programs that are announced in separate RFAs. Such partnerships have included research in biomedicine and agriculture using domestic animals jointly with NIH, plant genomics for bioenergy with the Department of Energy (DOE), and water sustainability and climate change with the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each of the partnerships is unique and is conducted through ad hoc grants-management arrangements. The agency partnerships offer a way for NIFA and USDA in general to use the AFRI program to leverage their interests with other resources.
Funding Over Time
Although the 2008 Farm Bill authorized $700 million to be appropriated for each of the fiscal years 2008–2012 to carry out AFRI’s sponsored programs, appropriated funding has not reached that level since AFRI’s inception (Figure 3-2). The total awards made each year have varied from about $171 million to about $233 million. Although the total amounts awarded by AFRI were similar or slightly higher than those awarded by the NRI (Figure 3-2), AFRI’s mandate includes some elements of IFAFS and Fund for Rural America programs and has a broader scope than the NRI’s (Table 3-2). Despite the broader scope, AFRI has made fewer and larger awards annually than the NRI did (Figure 3-3). The number of proposals submitted and the number of awards made have been declining since 2003 (Figure 3-3).
Although AFRI’s research mandate is broader than those of the CRGO and the NRI, AFRI’s appropriated budget has not been commensurate with its expanded mandate. The program budget grew from $14.5 million when CRGO was formed in 1979 to $73 million when CRGO was replaced by NRI in 1991 and has grown to $190 million since the NRI was replaced by AFRI. However, the numbers of proposals submitted and awards made
FIGURE 3-2 Total amounts requested from investigators and awarded by the NRI and AFRI, in nominal (inflation-unadjusted) terms.
SOURCES: USDA-CSREES, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008; USDA-NIFA, 2009a, 2011.
have decreased in the last 10–12 years (see Figures 3-3 and 3-4). Moreover, although the nominal amount of funding grew by an average of 8.7% per year from 1980 to 2007, after adjustment for the increased cost of agricultural R&D it grew annually in real terms by only 4.2% per year over the period.
In reviewing the various reports from 2004 to 2013 that described grand challenges in food and agriculture (USDA-REE Task Force, 2004; APLU, 2006; NRC, 2009; CAST, 2010; PCAST, 2012; GAO, 2013), the committee noted that the reports took for granted the appropriateness for one specific agency to take the lead in agriculture and food for fundamental, translational, and application science as well as extension or outreach and educational training of future scientists and leaders in academe, industry, and rural communities. USDA is the only agency that has the express
FIGURE 3-3 Numbers of proposals submitted to and awards made by the NRI and AFRI.
SOURCES: USDA-CSREES, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008; USDA-NIFA, 2009a, 2011.
mission in agriculture, food, and natural resources, and goals to conduct research (from fundamental science to practical application), outreach, and training to meet that mission. Under the leadership of the Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE), NIFA funds extramural research, extension, and education, and ARS conducts intramural research.5
The competitive grant is the predominant form of public-sector research support in many health and basic science and engineering grants programs6 where the application of research results is not constrained by geographic factors. Historically, competitive grants have been less common for agricultural research in the United States and in other countries. Public-sector agricultural research has often been geographically specific for agronomic or other reasons, and this may account for the development of funding and priority-setting processes that are responsive to various
5Other agencies that report to the Undersecretary for REE are ERS and NASS. ERS conducts intramural research on economics and social science, and NASS focuses on agricultural statistics.
6For example, NIH allocated 85% of its 2013 R&D funds competitively, and NSF, 100%.
FIGURE 3-4 Competitive funding for U.S. agricultural research, 1979–2007. Note: Total awarded competitive grants were adjusted to 2005 prices by the using agricultural R&D price deflator developed by InSTePP (2013). SOURCE: InSTePP (2013) compilation based on unpublished USDA files.
locational and economic conditions and concerns rather than to strictly scientific problem-based research foci (Schultz, 1971; NRC, 1994; Shields, 2012). While the locational and geographic constraints on applications of agricultural research still exist, much of the fundamental research that underpins today’s scientific advances in food and agriculture is not so constrained. Modern, successful plant genetics and breeding programs, for example, integrate molecular techniques with classical breeding methodologies. While the classical breeding and phenotypic evaluations may be location constrained, the underlying advances in the molecular research is not so constrained and is especially well suited to competitive funding processes where the funding decisions are based solely on the project’s likelihood of yielding the greatest scientific knowledge.
The competitive grant is an appropriate mechanism for revealing and funding new research opportunities that add to the pool of basic and applied knowledge and that strengthen disciplines, generate broadly applicable technologies (including those with applications across geographic boundaries, e.g., across states), and effectively address national and regional priorities. The advantages of competitive grants include (NRC, 1989, 1994, 2000; USDA-REE Task Force, 2004)
• Flexibility in changing the focus of a research program on the basis of scientific opportunities and societal priorities.
• The potential to attract the best talent through open competition.
• Selection of the best among diverse ideas and approaches proposed.
• Through professional and peer review, potential to ensure that research resources flow in the directions that have the greatest expected payoff.
• The capacity to balance and complement other research resources and programs.
Possible disadvantages include (Azoulay et al., 2011; Ness, 2012)
• Conducting requests for proposals and peer review is time-consuming and expensive.
• The competitive process for awarding grants adds an element of uncertainty compared with other types of funding arrangements.
• The short duration of grant cycles (up to 5 years) does not provide support for research and related activities that require long-term effort, perhaps for decades.
• It may be inappropriate to have competitive funding of SAES research that is supported primarily by core formula and state funding.
• The peer-review system might discourage risky research.
Agencies have developed different ways to optimize the competitive grants mechanism for supporting extramural, investigator-initiated research. NSF focuses on basic research, which it defines as “systematic study toward fuller knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts without specific applications towards processes or products in mind” (NSF, 2014). Given NSF’s focus, the advantages of the competitive process make it an appropriate grant-making mechanism for that agency. NSF also supports grants for long-term projects, such as observing systems7 and Long-Term Ecological Research.8 NIH conducts intramural and extramural programs of research. The extramural program takes advantage of investigator-driven research to continuously encourage innovations and expand the knowledge base in biomedical sciences. The intramural program conducts basic, translational, and clinical research and provides opportunities for long-term and high-impact research that are less likely to be funded via a competitive mechanism.
Similar to NIH, USDA also has intramural (ARS) and extramural
(NIFA) programs. NIFA’s flagship competitive grants program9 is AFRI. Both ARS and NIFA support research along the fundamental-to-applied spectrum in part because fundamental research and applied research are on a continuum in which there is not always a clear distinction between the two types. As is the case with NIH intramural programs, ARS supports long-term and high-risk projects that are not amenable to competitive grant cycles. They include support of long-term agricultural research sites,10 animal and plant germplasm repositories, facilities for sequencing relevant pathogens (such as avian influenza11), and critical community data resources (such as Gramene: A Resource for Comparative Grass Genomics12 and the Maize Genetics and Genomics Database13). The intramural research program also conducts research to support USDA’s regulatory functions and is designed to mobilize resources more quickly than a competitive grant program to conduct research for emergency responses (e.g., responses to avian influenza).
In addition to competitive grants, NIFA provides support for research, extension, and education activities at land-grant and other cooperating institutions through grants to these institutions on the basis of a formula designated by legislation.14 Formula grants provide support for capacity and infrastructure in each state through cooperative agreements with state experimental stations. The grants have multiple uses, including support for
• Experiment-station infrastructure.
• Scientist salaries that maintain subject-area capacity.
• Long-term maintenance research, such as research in plant breeding for insect and disease resistance.
• Local site-specific issues that demand rapid response.
• Startup funds for new researchers.
• Bridging funds between external grant support.
• The conduct of research and extension activities by experiment station–supported faculty and staff.
9In addition to AFRI, NIFA funds competitive grant programs for specific targets, for example, the Small Business Innovation Research Program and Specialty Crop Research Initiative.
10Available online: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=21984. Accessed December 23, 2013.
14Formula grants for food and agriculture were created under the Hatch Act of 1887, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, the McIntire-Stennis Act of 1962, and the Evans-Allen Program under the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977.
Once funds are disbursed to the SAESs, decisions on how to allocate them are made at the local level by directors of SAESs and Cooperative Extension Services, subject to the constraints identified in the federal acts by which the funds are made available (GAO, 2013). Because of the decentralized structure of formula grants, research stemming from formula grants tends to address issues in food and agriculture that are targeted to local or regional priorities.
Agriculture is a biological production process, so it is especially sensitive to local agroecological (e.g., soil, climate) realities. That gives rise to the requirement that at least some aspects of agricultural R&D be geographically oriented and thus provides a rationale for disbursing extramural USDA funds via formula grants and other means for research conducted at the state or regional level (NRC, 1994; Franz, 2007; Shields, 2012). Research funded by AFRI is not intended to compete with formula funding or with intramural research done within ARS, and the national program leaders of NIFA manage both AFRI and formula grants. Each funding mechanism is intended for different purposes. AFRI is intended to support competitively peer-reviewed science to address priorities in food and agriculture that are of national and multistate importance and to diversify institutions that participate in research, extension, and education beyond land-grant universities and experiment stations.
In 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was “asked to assess how [ARS and NIFA] ensure the efficient use of their resources for research” and concluded that there was little evidence of duplicative projects between external NIFA grants through AFRI and ARS (GAO, 2013). Although the research focus in NIFA and ARS had overlapping topical themes, each agency has developed safeguards that use the Current Research Information System (CRIS) to help to prevent funding duplicative projects. However, GAO noted opportunities for improvement in the comprehensiveness of the CRIS reported by ARS, the scope of CRIS reviews by NIFA (AFRI is within the scope, but other NIFA programs are not), and the user friendliness of CRIS. USDA is incorporating the VIVO15 system to improve its data management and contribute to Science and Technology for America’s Reinvestment: Measuring the Effect of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness and Science (STAR METRICS; NIH, 2013).
15“An open source semantic web platform that enables the discovery of research and scholarship across disciplinary and administrative boundaries through interlinked profiles of people and other research-related information” (Börner et al., 2012).
Other agencies fund some competitive research relevant to food and agriculture, but to the extent to which these programs overlap, the research that they fund appears complementary rather than duplicative and inappropriate (Table 3-3). In areas relevant to agriculture, NSF supports basic research in plant and animal sciences, engineering, and education (NSF, 2011). In addition to core programs in the Directorate for Biological Sciences, specific programs such as Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD), Surpassing Evolution: Transformative Approaches to Enhance the Efficiency of Photosynthesis, and Nitrogen: Improving on Nature (NITROGEN), support fundamental research in support of global food production. NSF has played a key leadership role in the multiagency Plant Genome Research Program that was initiated in 1998 as part of the National Plant Genome Initiative.
Some of the core NIH extramural funding programs in nutrition, obesity, and genetics in humans and animal models may fund projects conducted by agricultural researchers addressing important issues relevant to food and agriculture, but the mission focus of the agency is human health (NIH, 2011). For example, NIH supports research on poultry, but the focus is on poultry’s role as model organisms for biomedical research. Fundamental knowledge gleaned from research supported by the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases Initiative, cosponsored by NIH and NSF, may have relevance to infectious disease in agricultural animals.
Given its interest in supporting research in alternative and renewable sources of energy, it is not surprising that DOE has supported research in bioenergy, plant feedstock, biomass genomics, related technologies, and relevant ecosystems (DOE, 2013a,b). Since 2006, DOE and USDA have worked together to support fundamental research that would lead to large quantities of high-quality biomass, most recently through the joint Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDi, 2013). DOE focuses on the technologies for conversion of biomass to fuels and on characteristics of biomass that could enhance conversion. USDA supports research on increasing the on-farm productivity of biomass intended for energy uses.
The mission of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and the environment (AAAS, 2013). EPA is actively engaged in funding research conducted at the SAESs related to the regulation of bioengineered crops and agricultural chemicals and issues concerning resistance management in crops. There has been collaboration between the USDA and EPA in the area of nanotechnology grants with a significant focus on the environment.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has sup-
ported research on the agricultural impact of natural and human-induced changes in the water and energy cycle, the effects of agriculture on the carbon cycle, and agricultural land-use and land-cover changes. Extramural research topics relevant to agriculture include earth science research, land-cover and land-use changes, and carbon cycle and ecosystems (NASA, 2013).
Of all the federal agency grants programs, AFRI is the only one that focuses exclusively on food and agriculture and its components, including agricultural plant and animal systems; human nutrition; such natural resources as aquaculture and forestry; environmental issues associated with agricultural ecosystems and engineering associated with these topics; rural economies, markets, trade, and policy; and families, youth, and communities. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology report notes that USDA expends about $3.1 billion on intramural and extramural research, whereas the other federal agencies spend only about $700 million on agricultural, food, and natural-resource R&D; and that competitive grants from AFRI have a focus on the mission of the food system (CAST, 2010). Thus, it is likely that much investigator-driven research directly relevant to the high-priority topics of national interest in food and agriculture would be missing if AFRI did not exist. Furthermore, integration of research with extension and education is found only in AFRI and USDA.
The 2009 New Biology report recognized a major point of inflection in biological research. It called for more collaboration among agencies because integration among biology disciplines and with other science and engineering disciplines would permit a deeper understanding of biology and would lead to new insights through that tackling of issues from different disciplinary perspectives (NRC, 2009). Achieving such integration requires “deep knowledge in one discipline and basic ‘fluency’ in several” (NRC, 2009, p. 20); this concept parallels the strengths of agricultural scientists. For example, plant scientists that specialize in plant breeding need to be familiar with plant diseases, insect pests, soil microbiology, agronomy, and the food attributes of plants. The ecosystem model of agricultural production requires depths of strength and diversity of scientific connectivity and an appropriate agency to support them.
The report also noted that “solving practical problems will require, and in turn lead to, advances in fundamental understanding” (NRC, 2009, p. 15). That parallels the value of an organizational unit responsible for all elements of the R&D process from problem identification to fundamental research. Such breadth of scope promotes an increased understanding of the underlying principles, which enables these to be translated into applications or practices for farmers, growers, and ranchers who implement the applications and practices, and also provides an opportunity for researchers to receive feedback. The pace at which discoveries are made and the application of practical solutions in agricultural fields could be expected to
|Agency||Mission Statementb||Examples of Areas Relevant to Agriculture||Examples of Extramural Research Programs Relevant to Agriculture||Examples of Interagency Programs with AFRIc|
|USDA||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 managementb|
|NSF||To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes (NSF Act of 1950, P.L. 81-507)a||Fundamental plant and animal science, agricultural engineering, education, and social science||
• Core programs in the Directorate for Biological Sciences
• Plant Genome Research Program
• Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) program & BREAD Ideas Challenge
• Surpassing Evolution: Transformative Approaches to Enhance the Efficiency of Photosynthesis
• Nitrogen: Improving on Nature (NITROGEN)
• Plant Genome Research Program; other agency partners include USDA-ARS, USFS, DOE, NIH, EPA, USAID, DOI, and the Smithsonian Institution
• National Robotics Initiative; other partner agencies are NASA and NIH
• Water sustainability and climate
|NIH||To seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability||Nutrition and human health and animal health||
• Core programs in nutrition and obesity research
• Core programs in research on animal models, resources, genetics, and health
• Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases; other partner agencies are NSF and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of the United Kingdom
|DOE||To ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutionsc||Bioenergy, renewable energy, and energy efficiency||
• Bioenergy research centers (DOE, 2013a)
• Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy
|EPA||To protect human health and the environment||Impact of agriculture on natural resources and the environment||
|Agency||Mission Statementb||Examples of Areas Relevant to Agriculture||Examples of Extramural Research Programs Relevant to Agriculture||Examples of Interagency Programs with AFRIc|
• Aeronautics: to solve the challenges that still exist in our nation’s air transportation system: air traffic congestion, safety, and environmental impacts
• Human Exploration and Operations: to operate the International Space Station operations, develop commercial spaceflight opportunities, and conduct human exploration beyond low Earth orbit
• Science: to explore the Earth, solar system, and universe beyond; chart the best route of discovery; and reap the benefits of Earth and space exploration for society
• Space Technology: to develop, demonstrate, and infuse revolutionary, high-payoff technologies that expand the boundaries of the aerospace enterprise
|Agricultural impact of natural and human-induced changes in the water and energy cycle, effects of agriculture on carbon cycle, and agricultural land-use and land-cover changes||
• Earth-science research
• Land-cover and land-use changes
• Carbon cycle and ecosystems (NASA, 2013)
• Carbon cycle science; other partner agency is NOAA
NOTES: Interagency programs can involve more than two agencies. Each program is listed under its lead agency. DOI = U.S. Department of the Interior; NOAA = National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; USAID = U.S. Agency for International Development; USFS = U.S. Forest Service.
aSeveral other agencies include minor amounts of funding in their portfolios for specific mission-focused research and outreach. They include the Department of Health and Human Services (Food and Drug Administration, Center for Veterinary Medicine, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), USAID (only international food and agricultural development), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Department of Defense (DoD). For example, DoD provides grant funding to extension programs focused on early childhood education for military families, and DHS funds work directly connected to biosecurity related to potential acts of terrorism or threat.
bSOURCES: USDA, 2010; NIH, 2011; NSF, 2011; DOE, 2013b; EPA, 2013.
cSOURCE: AAAS, 2013.
dSOURCE: USDA-NIFA, 2013a.
be drastically reduced without a program, such as AFRI, that works with stakeholders in prioritizing problems, solicits proposals for research to address challenges in agriculture, identifies the best approach among the multiples suggested by a diverse group of investigators from different types of institutions, and funds the research. A President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) study (PCAST, 2012) argued for an innovation ecosystem and a rebalancing of funding to meet societal priorities. It recommended a major investment in NSF for basic science relevant to agriculture, but more important, it strongly supported the role of AFRI in responding to global food, water, and agricultural challenges. An example of NSF funding of basic research that would be beneficial to agriculture is its funding of photosynthesis research. Yet for such basic research to be translated and applied to plant crops requires a different emphasis that integrates fundamental research, translation, extension, and education of the next generation of scientists, which is central to AFRI. Collaboration and cooperation across agencies is a key message of the PCAST report.
Table 3-3 shows that there have been cooperative approaches among agencies at the nexus of their mission interests. The multiagency Plant Genome Research Program, the Biomass Research and Development Initiative cosponsored by USDA and DOE, and the interagency efforts between USDA and NIH to fund the sequencing of several major livestock genomes are examples of successful collaborative approaches. USDA continuously seeks opportunities for partnering with the other mission agencies whereby joint competitive grants programs can advance agricultural research (USDA-NIFA, 2013a). Such joint programs do not fund inappropriate duplicative work but rather complementary efforts that involve independent approaches or overall strategies to confirm, overturn, or extend particular research findings (IOM, 1991).
For various reasons, the private sector is unlikely to conduct research relevant to many of the challenges mentioned in Chapter 1 and covered more extensively in other reports (NRC, 1989, 2000, 2003; USDA-REE Task Force, 2004; PCAST, 2012). First, it often cannot recover its investment in public goods, such as clean air and water or reduction in soil erosion. Second, minor crops, alternative cropping systems, and diverse ecosystem modeling may constitute too small a market for profit making or be too complex to determine the pricing of improvements. Third, issues of domestic and international marketing, policies for trade, and community and rural development are not likely to have high priority in the private sector. Fourth, although some of the new knowledge arising from R&D investments in nutrition, diet, and health can yield substantial public-health benefits, it might be difficult for the private sector to reap sufficient benefits by way of new food or health-related products and processes.
Many independent reviews conducted since the 1970s have recognized the important role of a competitive grants program for funding research that addresses national priorities in agriculture and food. They have emphasized a serious mismatch between the resources allocated to the USDA competitive grants programs and the scope of issues that the funding mechanism is mandated to address. Recognizing the important role of research, extension, and education in addressing agriculture and food priorities, Congress established AFRI with an authorized annual budget of $700 million. The six priority areas outlined in the 2008 Farm Bill remain highly relevant to contemporary challenges facing agriculture. Despite the expansion of its scope relative to that of its predecessors (the NRI and CRGO), AFRI’s appropriated budget has been about one-third of authorized levels since its inception. Compared with the NRI, there has been a modest increase in resources, yet AFRI has the more ambitious mandate of addressing agricultural issues through research, extension, and education while integrating multiple disciplines, and this has strained the program.
AFRI funds extramural research that complements ARS’s intramural research, with the latter supporting long-term, high-risk or high-priority projects that are not amenable to short-term competitive grant cycles. The national scope of AFRI’s projects also complements the local and regional scope and capacity-sustaining purpose of formula grants. If AFRI did not exist, other federal research funding agencies could not accomplish its missions, and it is highly unlikely that the private sector would fill the gap.
A comparison of agency mission statements (in Table 3-3) makes it clear that other agencies address some research relevant to agriculture, and cooperative and collaborative cross-agency efforts reduce the likelihood of wasteful duplication. AFRI uses interagency partnerships or joint calls for proposals with other federal agencies to leverage available resources and to ensure complementarity rather than duplication in research funded by partner agencies. The committee finds that such multiagency cooperation and collaboration are critical for leveraging the scientific community’s multidisciplinarity and drawing in new scientists to solve foundational and more mission-oriented problems faced by the agricultural and food sectors. Development of formal interagency mechanisms that focus on challenges for food and agriculture within the greater bioeconomy would be appropriate for further leveraging and strategic coordination of the federal portfolio in this critically important sector of science and application. It is worth noting that different federal agencies are overseen by different congressional committees, and any broad strategy for leveraging and coordinating agencies’ efforts in agricultural research would need support of those congressional committees.
Ultimately, AFRI’s mission, the societal problems that it addresses, and the communities that it represents are not niches but fundamental elements of the U.S. and global economy. Without AFRI or its equivalent, there would be a major gap in the U.S. research, extension, and education portfolio. Past performance of the food and agricultural public sectors indicates that results of research, education, and extension supported by AFRI drive the bioeconomy forward, strengthen and enhance the food system, contribute to global economic development, and improve nutrition and the environment.
As previously mentioned, the committee’s observations are based on the legislative and administrative language used in the inauguration and management of the research programs examined. Examining how well those legislatively prescribed goals in the funded topics have been realized would require project-level analysis that was beyond the committee’s scope and resources, but such an examination would be highly desirable.
Finding 3-1: Without the AFRI program or its equivalent, there would be a major gap in the U.S. research, extension, and education portfolio.
Finding 3-2: Even though the dollar amount for the AFRI program has remained constant, the number of proposals submitted and the number of awards made have declined.
Finding 3-3: Interagency leveraging of resources in agriculture and food could be more strategic, more robust, and better coordinated across federal agencies.
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