The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) supports a wide array of research goals and communities through competitive, peer-reviewed grants. Although AFRI has been in operation only since 2009, its offerings have changed yearly in response to stakeholder input, the scientific leadership of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and budget considerations.
The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (referred to hereafter as the 2008 Farm Bill) established a complex set of goals for AFRI to broadly address nearly all components of food and agriculture. A review of AFRI will therefore need to include management responses to those goals by assessing whether AFRI:
• Is a source of scientifically merit-based grants in areas related to food and agriculture.
• Broadens the base of scientists who participate in either fundamental or applied research in those areas, attracting proposals from a wide array of public and private institutions.
• Encourages programs that include combinations of research, education, and outreach.
• Supports research activities in both the natural and social sciences.
• Supports research and education efforts at small, mid-size or mi-
nority-serving institutions that have limited institutional success through the Food and Agriculture Science Enhancement grants.
• Supports interdisciplinary research in cross-cutting fields mandated by Congress and that emerge as particularly promising.
• Enables the submission of a wide array of proposals, including
o Individual fellowships for graduate and postdoctoral students.
o Small planning and conference grants from individuals.
o Equipment and small-program grants from Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research institutions.
o Individual-investigator initiated proposals (“standard” grants).
o Large, multiyear, multi-investigator projects through Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) grants.
As described in Chapter 3, that broad base of support is organized in two program types that address separate but related areas: foundational grants and challenge-area grants. The focus of this chapter is on NIFA’s management of those two types of programs.
Foundational Program Grants
The intent of the Foundational Program is to support fundamental and applied research, education, and extension to facilitate advances in food and agriculture. The Farm Bill mandated that 60% of AFRI funding be devoted to fundamental (or basic) research and 40% to applied research. In addition, at least 30% should be made available to fund integrated research, education, and extension programs and at least 30% should be in support of research by multidisciplinary1 teams.
Two general features of the requests for applications (RFAs) should be noted. First, the general vocabulary and structure of announcements evolved, but the general instructions had the following features:
• Listing of the six priority areas (e.g., plants and animals).
• Stated priorities within each priority area, which vary year by year.
• A set of research focus areas under each priority, which changes in number and degree of specificity.
Second, Foundational Program RFAs have narrowed the scope of proposal submissions by emphasizing the need to focus on organisms of rel-
1Although the term “multidisciplinary” was not defined under the 2008 Farm Bill, NIFA has taken a broad and comprehensive approach to incorporating multiple disciplines in addressing complex topics that not only include the biological and physical sciences but also the social, behavioral, education, and economic sciences.
evance to U.S. agriculture. Proposals that include other organisms as model systems have needed to supply special justification to align with AFRI program goals.
Proposals for research, education, and extension in the Farm Bill’s six priority areas have been eligible for funding each year since 2009 except in 2012, when no foundational grants were offered.2 RFAs have changed in program emphasis and focus. In 2009, NIFA had 40 programs listed under the six Farm Bill priority areas, with highly detailed RFAs that range from broad to highly focused program areas in each of the six Farm Bill priority areas. For example, in the plant area alone, there were nine programs, including the wide-ranging field of plant biology with a focused program in arthropod and nematode biology and management. In 2010, it was much simpler, with mostly broad programs listed in the six priority areas. The offerings described in RFAs have since reverted to more detailed, focused programs. Table 5-1 indicates the programs in the six priority areas for 2010, 2011, and 2013 and shows a steadily increasing number of programs in each priority area by year and changes in priorities within the programs. An archive of all AFRI RFAs can be found online (USDA-NIFA, 2013b).
As an example of changing emphases and increased specificities, Table 5-2 shows in more detail the research focus areas specified in the RFAs in the plant priority area over a 3-year period. In Table 5-2, each priority area is numbered (e.g., “Plant Sciences” under 2010), and the research focus areas are labeled with lowercase letters (e.g., “a. Epigenetic regulation” under 2010). The other priority areas had similar modifications over the same interval.
In addition to a changing suite of programs, the areas and specific requirements indicate shifts away from proposal flexibility to more program specificity and away from fundamental research toward more applied objectives. Given the original mandate that 60% of support be for fundamental (or basic) research, the change in emphasis in the RFAs is noteworthy.
Challenge-Area Program Grants
Challenge-area grants were initiated in FY 2010 with tightly focused goals. They were designed to encourage the development of specific tools and responses to current societal problems. The programs have generally encouraged systems approaches, including large, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional, multiyear projects. Specific challenges have been presented in annual RFAs. Each year, a particular set of challenges has been posed for funding; given funding restrictions, AFRI has not funded programs in all
2According to NIFA, funds from 2012 were combined with the 2013 RFA.
|Priority Area||Programs by Year|
- Plant Sciences
- Pest and Insects
- Biology of Agricultural Plants
- Plant-Associated Microbes
- Weedy and Invasive Plants
- Insects and Nematodes
- Plant Breeding for Production
- Bio Mechanisms for Production
- Plants and Microbes - Weedy and Invasive Plants
- Insects and Nematodes
- Nutrition, Growth, and Lactation
- Health and Disease
- Breeding, Genetics, and Genomics
- Nutrition, Growth, and Lactation
- Health and Disease
- Tools for Breeding, Genetics, Genomics
|Food Safety, Nutrition, and Health||
- Pathogens in Plants
- Practical Approaches to Food Safety
- Reducing Food Allergies
- Physical and Molecular Mechanisms of Food Contamination
- Function and Efficacy of Nutrients
- Processing Technologies
- Physical and Molecular Mechanisms of Food Contamination
- Function and Efficacy of Nutrients
- Improving Food Quality
challenge areas every year but rather has offered a subset that sometimes deviates from original published schedules, as described below.
Each year’s RFAs have identified specific programs for emphasis. Research priorities for the five challenge areas were developed for 3 years of the program (2010, 2011, and 2012). Each RFA deliberately identified the 3-year projected objectives so that applicants could plan, knowing that future-year RFAs would identify related but different priorities (see Table 5-3 for a summary of research priorities in each challenge area). By 2011, priorities and budget constraints had dictated a change, and the crossed-out areas in Table 5-3 were not offered. The year after the missed year offered all the programs that had been proposed for that year and the excluded year. It was not until the FY 2013 RFAs that the research topics for the challenge pro-
|Priority Area||Programs by Year|
|Renewable Energy, Natural Resources, and Environment||
- Soil Microbes
- Agricultural Water
- Processes and Transformations in Soil, Water, and Air
- Ag System Thresholds
- Management in Ag Systems
- Soil, Air, and Water in Ag Ecosystems
|Ag Systems & Tech||
- Animal Management Systems
- Nanotech for Safe Food
- Engineering, Products, and Processes
- Engineering, Products, and Processes
|Ag Economics and Rural Communities||
- Small and Medium Farms
- Economics of Markets and Development
- Small and Medium Farms
- Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development
- Rural Development
- Markets and Trade
- Small and Medium Farms
- Entrepreneurship, Tech, Innovation
- Rural Families, Communities, and Regional Development
- Markets and Trade
SOURCE: USDA-NIFA, 2011a, 2012a,b.
gram in 2013, 2014, and 2015 were announced. Food safety was the only area that did not have priorities established for 2014 and 2015.
In summary, AFRI’s portfolio can best be understood by reviewing current and past RFAs. Appendix F presents a complete list of the grant types offered in each of the 25 RFAs for foundational and challenge-area programs from 2009 through 2013 and shows a strikingly complex collection of grant offerings with considerable variation year by year.
As described in this chapter and in Chapter 3, AFRI offers various types of grants. Standard project grants mostly involve single principal
1. Plant Sciences
a. Epigenetic regulation
b. Light and hormone control
2. Pest and beneficial insects
a. Abundance and spread
b. Plant insect interactions
c. Genetic mechanisms
1. Biology of Agricultural Plants in any single or combination of
a. Genome structure and function
b. Molecular studies and biotech
c. Breeding for better plants and resistance
d. Responses to pests
e. Responses to environment
f. Improved nutrition
2. Plant-Associated Microorganisms
a. Must be agriculturally relevant
3. Weedy and Invasive Plants
4. Insects and Nematodes, especially
b. Interactions with plants
c. Management programs
d. Transgenics to limit severity
1. Plant Breeding for Agricultural Production in any single or combination of:
a. Improving public plant breeding programs
b. Enhancing phenomics
c. Improved extension to breeding community
2. Biological Mechanisms for Plant Production addressing:
a. Growth and development for improved productivity or nutritional content
b. Response to abiotic stress
3. Microorganisms in:
a. Microbe-microbe or microbe-plant interactions
b. Plant molecular responses
c. Epidemiology of disease spread
4. Weedy and Invasive Plants
a. Ecological processes in IPM
b. Ecology and genetics of herbicide resistance
c. Ecology and evolution studies for weed management
5. Insects and Nematodes in
a. Interaction mechanisms, especially using genomics
b. Plant responses especially through signaling mechanisms
c. Control through transgenic approaches
d. Genomics of vectors
investigator (PIs) although grants with a few co-PIs have been allowed. In general, these standard grants parallel individual-investigator initiated grants typical of other federal granting agencies—such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—and have been the exclusive type of grant in support of research, extension, or education in the Foundational Program. Grants aimed at strengthening the research infrastructure of small, medium-size, and minority-serving institutions are in this category.
Starting in 2010, and carrying over and extending a practice of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Research Initiative (NRI), AFRI used CAP grants for the challenge-area program. The duration of those grants was typically 5 years, they had total budgets ranging from more than $2 million to almost $40 million, and they involved up to 40 co-PIs and a median of 20 co-PIs (USDA-NIFA, 2013j). Each project involved a complex mixture of research, extension, and education, and all were funded as continuation projects; that is, funding for the years beyond the first year were taken from the succeeding years’ budgets. The budgetary effect of the grants is discussed below. The leadership for these large grants was awarded largely (almost 90%) to land-grant universities; this suggests a failure to broaden the base of scientists involved in agriculture-related research, and about 60% of the effort is devoted to applied research (USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a). The RFAs were highly specific and detailed, and this suggests a top-down design strategy, from AFRI to the research community. A potential downside of these grants was pointed out by a number of CAP grant PIs who provided input to the committee about the complex application process and the major and expensive need for constant communication and grant administration among the PIs in their projects. In contrast, several felt strongly that their projects were uniquely able to connect diverse segments of the research community to address important issues. Chapter 4 of this report presents methods for examining the efficiency and potential return on investment of grant projects of various sizes and identifies possible inefficiencies of large grants that would need to be taken into account in considering the efficacy of this type of grant (Lane, 2010; Wadman, 2010).
In 2010, a decision was made to readjust AFRI’s portfolio to reflect 30% for standard grants and 70% for CAP awards for collaborative research. The shift from standard grants aimed at fundamental research to large CAP grants integrating research, extension, and education aimed at specific challenges constituted a strategic change for AFRI. As previously mentioned, even in the Foundational Program, RFAs identified detailed topic areas rather than less directed exploratory efforts. Budget constraints resulting from lack of growth in appropriated budgets compared with initial authorizations and the move to large CAP grants changed the spectrum
|AFRI Challenge Areas||RFA|
|FY 2010||FY 2011||FY 2012|
|Agricultural and natural resources science for climate variability and change
(RFA actually said climate change only)
- Cropping systems: cereal production systems (e.g., corn, barley, wheat, rice, oats)
- Animal systems: swine or poultry production systems
- Forest systems: southern conifers
- Cropping systems: legume production systems, forage production systems
- Animal systems: ruminant livestock production systems, dairy production systems
- Forest systems: western conifers
- Grassland, pastureland, and rangeland systems
- Cropping systems: food and nonfood horticultural production systems, fiber production systems
- Animal systems: farmed aquaculture and specialty livestock
- Forest systems: deciduous hardwoods and mixed forests
- Agroecosystems that provide ecosystem services (e.g., provisioning, regulating, supporting, and cultural services identified under the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment)
|Childhood obesity prevention||
Preschool and early elementary school-age children (ages 2-8 years) will be targeted for the following:
- Integrated Research, Education, and Extension to Prevent Childhood Obesity
- Extension Interventions to Prevent Childhood Obesity
- Transdisciplinary Graduate Education and Training in Nutrition and Family Sciences
|Same areas as FY 2010 but for older children (ages 9-14)||Same areas as FY 2010 but for older children (ages 15-19)|
or Child Development or Related Fields to Prevent Childhood Obesity
- Methodological Research to Assess the Effectiveness of Obesity Prevention Strategies
- Community-Based Childhood Obesity Prevention
- Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli (STEC)
- Food processing technologies
- Viruses in food
- Food safety education and emerging food safety issues
- Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry
- Microbial ecology of foodborne pathogens
- Control of other food-borne pathogens of concern, e.g., Listeria monocytogenes
|AFRI Challenge Areas||FY 2010||FY 2011||FY 2012|
- Improving feed efficiency of agriculturally relevant animals
- Minimizing losses from one livestock disease with major impact on food production, marketing, and/or trade
- Minimizing crop plant losses from oomycete pathosystems
- Program delivery and implementation of wide-area pest monitoring
- Improving sustainable food systems to reduce hunger and food insecurity domestically and globally
- Translating genomics into practical applications for selection of animals with genetic resistance to diseases
- Minimizing losses from a second livestock disease with major impact on food production, marketing, and/or trade
- Management of fungal diseases in plants
- Management of vector associated pathogens in plants
- Enhancing animal welfare in sustainable food systems – a systems approach that evaluates biological, environmental, and societal impacts of different production systems
- Evaluating Life Cycle Analysis of sustainable food systems
- Determining the impact of use of sustainable food system best practices in communities
- Increasing reproductive fertility in food animals
- Minimizing losses from a third livestock disease with major impact on food production, marketing, and/or trade
- Management of plant insect pests
- Management of plant bacterial diseases
- Enhancing the viability of small and mid-sized farms in the context of global food security through
- Evaluating trade and sustainable food systems—labor, environment, animal welfare, and related issues in major food-exporting countries to the United States
- Determining U.S. consumer willingness to pay for standards that enhance food security
- Improving public policies and business strategies that enhance sustainable food systems and global food security
- Crop protection for sustainable feedstock production systems
- Enhanced-value co-product development
- Carbon sequestration and sustainable bioenergy production
- Impacts of policy on feedstock production systems
- Scalable conversion of feedstock to “drop-in” biofuels
- Impacts of feedstock production systems on pollinators and wildlife
- Land-use changes resulting from feedstock production and conversion
- Socioeconomic impacts of biofuels in rural communities
- Logistics of handling feedstocks for biofuels
aAreas that are crossed out indicate projected RFAs for 2011 and 2012 that were not issued in those years.
SOURCE: USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g.
SOURCE: USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g.
of research supported by AFRI. Table 5-4 lists the percentage of overall funding of grant research focus areas from 2009 to 2012, as reported in the published AFRI annual synopses. Data for 2012 are from an interim report of February 2013. Table 5-5 tracks the move toward multidisciplinary vs. single-discipline research and shows the trend to support programs that involve multiple investigators in more systems-oriented research.
The move toward large multidisciplinary, multi-institution grants (CAP grants) has also been accompanied by a shift toward so-called integrated projects that fund coordinated efforts in research, education, and extension. Table 5-6 tracks that change. It is striking that although integrated proj-
|Integrated research, education, and extension||30%||47%||58%||54%|
SOURCE: USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g.
ects increased substantially, single-function education or extension projects showed no change.
Although AFRI presented RFAs for grant programs each year, the budget available to support new grants varied considerably among the different areas, as is shown in Table 5-7. In 2009, AFRI offered only foundational grants; in 2010, it offered foundational and all the challenge-area grants; in 2011 and 2012, some programs were not offered; and in 2013, all programs were offered again. As mentioned above, AFRI adopted a policy of “continuation funding” for the CAP grants in the challenge-area program. In that scenario, funding of work beyond the year of the initial award is provided by later years’ anticipated budgets. AFRI points out that this approach “allows for a much higher level of post-award oversight and quality control since funds are allocated on a year-by-year basis with continued funding provided only if performance has been satisfactory, appropriations are available for this purpose, and continued support would be in the best interests of the Federal government and the public” (USDA-NIFA, 2011b). It is striking to note that because of continuing commitments, 2011 and 2012 witnessed considerable decreases in funds available for new grants. The 2013 available budget for new grants rebounded as a result of the forward-funding approach adopted by AFRI’s managers.
The move to large multidisciplinary, multifunction CAP grants and legislative decisions not to fully appropriate authorization funding levels appear to have led to a decline in the number of new grants funded annually from 2009 to 2012 (see Table 5-8).
As previously discussed, in addition to the six legislatively mandated priority areas, NIFA scientific leadership identified five challenge areas that are based on societal challenges outlined in the National Research Council’s New Biology report (NRC, 2009) and the agency goals for the program (see Figure 5-1 for an overview of AFRI priority setting and see Chapter 3).
In each foundational or challenge area, research priorities are driven by National Program Leaders (NPLs). According to NIFA, NPLs take into consideration a variety of
inputs from any individual and specifically from commodity groups, industry, interagency federal work groups, the National Academy of Sciences, nongovernmental organizations, scientific societies, and university partners. In addition, AFRI obtains input from the Congress, the Department, the NAREEEAB [National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board], the REE [Research, Education, and Economics] Mission Area, and NIFA’s scientific leadership. Stakeholder input
|In millions of dollars|
Subtotal for Challenge
|Total for all new||190||223||93.5||47||171|
|Total for all grants, as announced in RFAs||190||262||262||264||264|
|% of total for new||100%||85%||36%||18%||65%|
SOURCE: USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g.
|FY 2009||FY 2010||FY 2011||FY 2012|
SOURCE: USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g.
FIGURE 5-1 Setting AFRI’s challenge-area program. Dotted lines and items in gray reflect previous inputs for setting priorities.
SOURCE: Based on information provided by NIFA.
is obtained in several ways. Input is solicited in all NIFA RFAs; and NIFA may also conduct stakeholder listening sessions or workshops, some as stand-alone events, some in conjunction with national scientific meetings. There are also webinars organized by NIFA. Stakeholder information from other government and private-sector events and publications are also gathered by NIFA.” (USDA-NIFA, 2013i)
Stakeholders can provide input and comments on AFRI’s priority setting at any time through NIFA’s website (USDA-NIFA, 2012c), and the RFAs have an address for interested parties to use in submitting comments. Stakeholder listening sessions are also posted on the agency’s website, published in the Federal Register, and disseminated through NIFA’s listservs (Lichens-Park and Mirando, 2013; USDA-NIFA, 2013f).
All the information above is considered by the NPLs in developing proposals for future research to be addressed by the foundational and challenge programs. NPLs then present their plans to NIFA scientific leadership, and the topics for the RFAs are defined. However, to judge from the information provided by NIFA, there did not appear to be a systematic approach or a standardized operating procedure for identifying priorities for all NPLs. And there is no external mechanism for validating or conducting concept clearance for decisions by NPLs and NIFA leadership.
Because of the goal of each program, priorities for the challenge areas are specific and target key and immediate issues in food and agriculture; for the foundational areas, they are broader. Challenge-area priorities are identified every 3 years (see Table 5-3), and foundational program priorities are identified annually (see Table 5-2); this makes it difficult for investigators to predict which priority or program areas will be offered and emphasized at any given time.
Allocation of funds for challenge and foundational program RFAs is also determined by “NIFA leadership taking into account stakeholder input, previous year investments, non-AFRI program support from NIFA and other funding agencies, and scientific judgment” (USDA-NIFA, 2013h).
The success of AFRI will be measured according to how well its program is able to attract the best ideas from a broad community of qualified researchers in all areas of science. For AFRI to succeed, there needs to be a well-documented and transparent process in place for managing proposals and awards. AFRI’s grant-management process is fundamentally the same as that of its predecessor organization, the NRI, and is patterned after successful models used by such sister agencies such as NSF and NIH. The
proposal and award-management process involves a number of steps, which are illustrated in Figure 5-2.
Request for Applications
Program announcements (RFAs) are prepared by the RFA writing group, which comprises a number of NPLs and program specialists, on the basis of the established NIFA proposal and award policy, parts of which are found on the NIFA website and at Grants.gov. The approval chain of AFRI RFAs consists of the leadership of the relevant NIFA institute, NIFA senior executives (the Science Leadership Council), the NIFA Policy Office, and the Office of the Chief Scientist.
RFAs are posted simultaneously to the NIFA website and to Grants.gov as they are released. They are also listed on the NIFA homepage as news items (“In the News”) and in the NIFA Update, which are broadly distributed through seven listservs to well over 2,000 organizations, institutions, and individuals. Since FY 2011, NIFA has issued a list of RFAs that it expects to fund in the upcoming fiscal year. The list is developed before or at the start of a fiscal year with an expected date of release of each specific RFA; however, those plans are not always implemented. For example, NIFA announced that it planned to issue seven RFAs for AFRI in FY 2011, but three were actually issued. Because of delays in appropriations, RFAs are
often issued before the budget for the fiscal year is known. As a result, RFAs are often modified after they are issued; most of the modifications are administrative, such as an extended submission deadline, rather than programmatic, such as priority areas.
Because the priority areas, the date of RFAs issuance, and the submission deadlines change from year to year, potential applicants must wait to start preparing their proposals. Therefore, the time allotted for proposal preparation becomes crucial if AFRI is to receive high-quality proposals. NIFA aims to provide at least 30 days of preparation time for letters of intent from the date of RFA issuance for most standard grant programs and at least 2 months for CAP proposals. Responses to letters of intent are to be provided within 2–3 weeks of the deadline. NIFA’s goal for the preparation time for full proposals from the notification on the letters of intent is a minimum of 30 days for most proposals and 4 months for CAP proposals.
RFA activities for FY 2009–2012 are summarized in Appendix F. Individual RFAs can be found online (USDA-NIFA, 2013b). Each RFA contains information specific to the program areas that are soliciting proposals and a description of AFRI policies and procedures that are common to all program areas (with identical text). Program-specific information includes priority areas, submission deadlines, and an upper limit for the budget. If an applicant requests more than that limit, the proposal is returned without review. Most proposals request a budget at the upper limit. For challenge-area programs, which solicit mostly integrated projects or CAPs, many RFAs read like an outline of a proposal rather than like a solicitation document with detailed guidance on research, education, and extension activities that is expected or often required in a proposal. Required documentation outside the project description for CAP proposals (CVs and support documents for up to 40 co-PIs, subaward budgets from a dozen participating institutions, and the like) resulted in proposals that were 400–700 pages long.
Proposals for joint programs with other agencies are solicited separately through a joint solicitation and managed as part of the AFRI portfolio in that funds to support successful proposals come from the AFRI appropriation. The proposal-review process for joint programs varies from program to program, ranging from simple piggy-backing on the partner agencies’ process to joint management of the entire process. In all cases, there is no separate scientific review of proposals identified by AFRI, and AFRI funds proposals that are highly rated by the joint review process and are aligned with AFRI’s goals and objectives. All joint programs supported by AFRI are listed on NIFA’s website.3
3Available online at http://www.csrees.usda.gov/funding/afri/afri_interagency_programs.html. Accessed December 23, 2013.
Peer review is the central component of any competitive research-grants program. For a competitive research-grants program to maintain credibility, the review process needs to be well documented and transparent. Furthermore, the system needs to have an appropriate mechanism for preventing actions that may undermine integrity. AFRI continues to follow a well-established, science-based peer-review process that was also in place with the NRI.
Once letters of intent or proposals are submitted in response to RFAs, they are reviewed according to established policies and procedures, parts of which are described on the NIFA homepage, at Grants.gov, and in individual RFAs. Panel managers and NPLs assigned to each program area are responsible for fair and thorough review of proposals. Panel managers are part-time, temporary USDA employees recruited for the sole purpose of managing AFRI proposal review, whereas NPLs are full-time, permanent USDA employees.
The panel-manager system is a modification of the rotator system used at NSF.4 An advantage of the panel-manager system is that its part-time nature makes it easier to recruit busy active researchers to participate. A disadvantage is that panel managers are not held accountable for their decisions; accountability falls on the NPLs. Moreover, panel managers are not involved in NIFA activities at the policy level, such as strategic planning, priority setting, and portfolio management.
Conflict-of-interest (COI) rules governing the peer-review process are in place. NIFA’s COI rules contain both those required by law and those imposed by NIFA. In response to the present committee’s request for comments, a concern was expressed about strict adherence to the COI rules because it often requires the most knowledgeable specialists on the review panel to exclude themselves. Several commenters also noted that COI constraints often limit expert review of a particular proposal.
Panel members are identified and recruited on the basis of information obtained from the letters of intent. The panel manager and NPL assigned to each program are responsible for formulating a panel whose members are well balanced in technical expertise, gender, types of institutions, career stages, and other factors. Panels are constituted anew each year. To maintain continuity on panels from year to year, it is the general practice of AFRI programs to invite 30–50% of the previous year’s panelists to return (USDA-NIFA, 2013c). AFRI tries not to ask people to serve on a review panel more than 3 years in a row.
4Available online at http://www.nsf.gov/about/career_opps/rotators/index.jsp. Accessed December 23, 2013.
The number of panels per program is based on proposal loads. Multiple panels can be held to review proposals submitted to a single program when the number is large. Conversely, a single panel might review proposals submitted to two or more programs that have similar or identical scientific themes when the number submitted to each program is relatively small. Occasionally, ad hoc reviewers are added as needed. Around 2006, the NRI moved away from ad hoc reviews. Continuing that practice, AFRI programs use ad hoc reviewers rarely and only to augment panel reviews when specific expertise that is not found among the panel members is needed.
Reviewers prepare reviews according to published evaluation criteria. Review criteria for the AFRI are scientific merit, qualifications of project personnel and adequacy of facilities, and relevance to program priorities, including importance of the topic for agriculture. Often, additional review criteria are used to review proposals submitted to specific programs; these are usually described in the RFAs.
Panel members submit written reviews before the face-to-face panel meetings, which are usually held in Washington, DC. On the basis of the submitted reviews, panel managers and NPLs prepare a list of proposals that received uniformly poor reviews. At the beginning of a panel meeting, the panel manager presents the list of poorly ranked proposals and asks the entire panel whether any of the listed proposals need to be discussed. If there are no objections, these proposals will not be discussed further by the panel.
For a funding decision, NIFA policy states that at least three independent written reviews are needed, reviewers’ comments are advisory, and final funding decisions are made by NIFA. Nevertheless, the current practice is to consider panels’ recommendations as governing. AFRI staff will override panels’ rankings only to meet congressionally mandated award distributions (e.g., to states that are underrepresented in the AFRI portfolio). Table 5-9 summarizes the scale of proposal-review activities.
Face-to-face panel meetings have been the norm for conducting proposal reviews. However, a new process that combines in-person panel meetings along with virtual panel meetings is worth exploring as it takes advantage of virtual conferencing capabilities. For example, an expert provided input to the committee about his involvement in reviewing 120 nanotechnology applications using a combination of face-to-face and virtual meetings. The first meeting was a virtual panel of 24 reviewers that reduced the number of proposals for consideration in half, and a later meeting was held in-person with a 12-person panel that made the final selection of projects to be funded. This hybrid approach provides a substantial reduction in time and cost while still allowing an in-depth review at a later date that is expected from a seated panel focused on selecting the most outstanding applications.
|Number of RFAs||Number of Programs||Number of Proposals||Number of Panels||Number of Panel Members|
aMost data are derived from AFRI’s annual synopses (USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g). Numbers of panels for all years and number of panel members for FY 2012 are from information provided by NIFA.
NPLs are assigned responsibility for managing programmatic issues that arise from AFRI awards in the post-award stage. Depending on the project type (foundational or challenge area), the size of award (standard or CAP), and the degree of complexity, an NPL may have diverse roles in the management of funded projects.
The budget of any particular AFRI program is established in advance of peer review, so the program can approximate the number of proposals that can be funded when the funding plan is presented to the Division Director and Institute Assistant Director. After peer review, funds are normally not redistributed among programs in a Division or throughout an institute on the basis of the quality or number of fundable proposals or a desired change or to balance portfolios among scientific areas or among types of research. AFRI indicated that there are far more high-quality proposals in all programs than could possibly be funded, so it is reasonable that programmatic budgets are established ahead of time because only high-quality proposals will be funded. Therefore the Division Director and Institute Assistant Director do not seem to play a direct role in determining the final funding recommendations, and the presentation of the funding plan appears to be pro forma.
Most NPLs manage both review of applications and post-award scientific programs. Thus, NPLs have both an application portfolio and an award portfolio that can be so large that it demands more time for review and constrains the time available for program management. AFRI project management includes reviews of annual reports and some direct interactions through site visits, meetings of investigators, phone calls, connections at professional meetings, and so on, depending on the complexity and nature of projects. However, the committee received comments from several grantees that there was much less post-award management of projects compared to that of other agencies.
It is unclear that the types and sizes of grants determine how many grants are in an NPL’s portfolio. Based on information provided by NIFA, the workload of any particular NPL appears random. There do not seem to be any established best practices or standard operating procedures (SOPs) for programmatic post-award management, particularly for the larger, more complex awards.
The AFRI program and its predecessors have had a long-standing practice to adhere strictly to the priority ranking established through peer review. That is a laudatory goal, but it is restrictive in that it does not allow for raising proposals to meet programmatic priorities. Peer review is merely one—albeit a critical one—component of the funding decision, and there is a need to provide greater flexibility to meet the mission. Greater flexibility would allow scientific staff (including panel managers, NPLs, and Division
and Institute Directors) to play a more integral role in the funding-decision process. It also allows them to use their scientific backgrounds to ensure the success of their own programs and the overall success of AFRI. With such flexibility, however, there need to be defined SOPs for recording funding decisions and establishing clear criteria for altering ranks apart from peer-review order. SOPs are essential for documenting the scientific and programmatic justification of funding decisions. AFRI does not have a second level of review itself, but one could consider the review by the Division and Institute Directors with input by NPLs as serving this purpose.
AFRI’s post-award management needs improvement. Effort needs to be made to provide NPLs the necessary time and resources to provide a high level of post-award management to ensure that grants reach successful conclusions. As shown in Figure 5-3, most NPLs are dedicated to AFRI on a part-time basis. Furthermore, both full-time and part-time NPLs are involved in both review and scientific program management, and their portfolios need to be balanced by management to accommodate a baseline level of post-award activities and professional development. That means that projects may need to be redistributed among NPLs for post-award management, depending on the numbers and complexity of foundational, challenge, CAP, and standard grants in any particular portfolio.
FIGURE 5-3 Time allocation for AFRI by NIFA NPL. The 68 NPLs were ranked and coded according to the percentage of their time spent on AFRI. The numbers have no implicit meaning.
SOPs for programmatic oversight are not well established, and NPLs will need to be evaluated as to their ability to provide a high level of program management.
National Institute of Food and Agriculture Policies and Programs
One of the frequently stated goals in all AFRI RFAs is to ensure diversity in the pool of grant recipients (Ramaswamy, 2013). An intended goal of AFRI was to expand the population of researchers, including nontraditional agricultural scientists, from which proposals might come and so improve the quality of the science.5 To ensure diversity in the pool of participants, AFRI must strive for broad diversity in RFA distribution, proposal applications, review-panel composition, and grant awards.
Distribution of Requests for Applications
A wide distribution of RFAs throughout the research community would presumably maximize the diversity of researchers and organizations applying. As mentioned earlier, all RFAs are posted on the NIFA website and at Grants.gov and distributed to all land-grant universities (LGUs), Hispanic-serving institutions, Native American institutions, and many other related non-LGUs and others through listservs maintained by NIFA NPLs for the communities that they serve. NIFA believes that the entire research community typically monitors such postings and promptly distributes them among their various constituencies and that therefore the availability of the RFA announcements is sufficiently wide to meet the needs of nontraditional agricultural research communities. No data are available for judging the diversity of RFA recipients, but the breadth of distribution probably ensures that widely diverse potential applicants are fully informed.
NIFA notes that when assembling a review panel, the NPL and panel manager “ensure that all peer panels have a diverse pool of participants” (USDA-NIFA, 2013d). NIFA also states the following:
Selection of panelists and proposal review. The program leader and panel manager aim to assemble a diverse panel active in research, education, and/or extension (as appropriate for the program) related to the subject
5Remarks made to the committee by William Danforth, April 1, 2013. Available on request from the Public Access Records Office, National Research Council, Washington, DC.
matter in question. The goal is to create a balanced panel with the necessary expertise to cover the range of the proposals, while also maintaining diversity in geographical location, institution size and type, professional rank, gender, and ethnicity. Special care is taken to include panelists from minority groups and from minority-serving institutions. (USDA-NIFA, 2013c)
The committee was given summary data on panel composition generated by NIFA for all NRI and AFRI programs in FY 2007–2011 (USDA-NIFA, 2013a). During that 5-year period, an average of 473 panelists per year reviewed an average of 1,945 proposals.
Panel composition by organization is, not surprisingly, skewed toward the university community: 78% of panel members are in academe, 12% in federal agencies, 4% in industry, and 6% other. Although industry representation is low, engagement by industry researchers has always been difficult to obtain in research review panels. The direct benefits of panel membership are hard to justify in a private-sector work environment that generally does not reward public service.
The geographic diversity of the panel was broadly represented as well. According to the FY 2007-2011 summary of panel composition, average representation for the Northeast was 21%, the South 32%, the North Central 27% and the West 20%. Given the difficulty of establishing a panel due to varying demands on potential panel members’ time and the need to cover certain specific disciplines, NIFA seems to have achieved reasonable geographic breadth.
An argument could be made that given the outsized need for professional expertise in panel makeup, diversity of geography, race, gender, rank, and institution might be occasionally and necessarily sacrificed, but that does not appear to have happened based on the data provided by NIFA. NIFA has succeeded in diversifying its AFRI panel membership without compromising the scientific quality of the review process.
Diversity might be considered in a number of ways in the granting of AFRI funds. Reliable data are available on the relative diversity of institutions and researchers. Those data offer a clear window into participation in AFRI programs and begin to answer the question of whether AFRI has successfully recruited a broad mixture of nontraditional agricultural scientists and nontraditional agricultural institutions.
In AFRI, Food and Agriculture Science Enhancement (FASE) grants are intended to enhance institutional capacity and attract new scientists into agricultural research, especially in underrepresented constituencies, such as the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) states, which are considered underrepresented in federal research, education, and extension funding. NIFA’s stated goal is to set aside 10% of AFRI research dollars for “strengthening awards” and predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships grants. FASE grants, in particular, include predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships, new investigator grants, and strengthening awards.
According to the AFRI annual synopses (USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g), FASE grants have averaged 16.8% of the total funds available, providing an average of $32 million per year. In light of limited funding, that has been on the average an aggressive response to building agricultural infrastructure. However, the actual number of researchers trained6 as part of FASE declined by 58% from FY 2007 to FY 2012 (that period includes the last 2 years of the NRI) (Figure 5-4), and this indicates an alarming trend. Moreover, in 2011, the last year for which NIFA provided data, only 13% of predoctoral and postdoctoral applicants received awards (USDA-NIFA, 2012a) compared with 33% in 2010 (USDA-NIFA, 2011a; no other data made available). A number of those who provided testimony and input to the committee expressed that meager rates of funding can be discouraging to new, young researchers.7 If talented young investigators in agriculture decide to look for higher funding rates outside USDA, they could alter their focus away from agricultural research; some researchers have indicated that is already happening.
A number of organizations have called for a substantial increase in funding for training and supporting the work of new researchers. Concern was expressed by the Tri-Societies (a collaborative association of agronomy, crop science, and soil sciences societies) during committee testimony (February 27, 2013) that young investigators are not being given a sufficient chance to get started and that they might well move to other, nonagricultural investigation (Volenec, 2013). In response, the Tri-Societies have proposed a focused Young Investigators Grant Program to be funded at a level of $50 million.
In the American Society of Plant Biology’s survey of its membership, 50% of respondents believed that AFRI was an important source of fund-
6Researchers trained is defined by NIFA as undergraduate students, graduates, and postdoctoral scientists funded by NRI and AFRI grants. Data were provided in an Excel file titled “Training Data for NRI and AFRI programs from 2000–2012.”
7AFRI grants are awarded to the institution, not the researcher; therefore, there are no restrictions for submitting proposals based on citizenship.
ing for graduate students. Their concern was that in light of the history of low levels of PI funding, students would be discouraged from continuing in agriculture. They also believed that by prescribing the research topics in the RFA narrowly, AFRI was disenfranchising the best and brightest researchers.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Report to the President (PCAST, 2012) recommended that “the USDA, in collaboration with NSF, expand a national competitive fellowship program for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.” PCAST noted a repeated concern among testifying experts that agriculture is facing a workforce deficit and that the best and brightest students are not interested in agricultural research and instead are flocking to medicine, law, and business. Fellowships for young scientists could greatly improve the talent pipeline and develop an agricultural workforce that produces needed “innovations, technology, and products for the future.” PCAST’s proposal was for $180 million per year for at least 5 years.
According to the AFRI annual synopses (USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g), new-investigator awards averaged $5.6 million over its
4 years of funding, 2012 being the lowest at $1.16 million. Thus, although AFRI’s support in FASE grants has been above the goal on a relative basis (as a percentage of available dollars), the actual amount awarded to new investigators is well short of recommendations from those concerned with the future quality of agricultural research.
Respondents to the present committee’s Web-based solicitation of input indicated that they believed that AFRI favored large, well-known institutions, especially 1862 land-grant universities (LGUs). They believed not only that the LGUs were favored because of reputation but that the complexity of the grant-application process favored universities that could provide expanded resources and administrative support to handle the paperwork. Some also believed that large institutions were advantaged because they could handle the lower than standard overhead specified for AFRI grants better, but it is clear that these institutions also submit the largest number of proposals.
At first glance, data from the AFRI annual synopses appears to support the perception of advantage enjoyed by LGUs, which on the average submitted 77% of the applications and received 79% of the dollars awarded (Table 5-10). That is not noticeably different from the last 2 years (FY 2007–2008) of the NRI awards, in which on the average 73% of the applications were from and 78% of the dollars were awarded to LGUs (USDA-NIFA, 2013h). Thus, there has not been an appreciable increase in awards to non–1862 LGUs, private universities, private research, or indus-
|Fiscal Year||Applications Submitted (%)||Applications Awarded (%)||Grant Dollars Awarded (%)|
NOTE: Percentages not accounted for include 1890 and 1994 LGUs, non-LGU public and private universities, private research, individuals, and federal institutions. No data were available for 2012.
SOURCES: USDA-NIFA, 2009, 2011a, 2012a, 2013g.
try, despite the expressed desire to expand the population of researchers receiving grants.
Although the 1862 LGUs receive the bulk of the grants, the fact that non-1862 LGUs are awarded grants in proportion to their application rate suggests that new institutions are not unduly discouraged from submitting applications. Expressed concerns range from the complexity of AFRI RFAs to investigators’ enjoying a better success rate elsewhere. Some concern has also been expressed that the allowable overhead rate—30% of the federal funds awarded—deters non-LGUs from applying for grants (NRC, 2000). This amount closely approximates the total amount that other agencies allocate for indirect costs using the standard methodology of applying the federally negotiated indirect cost rates (an average of 33.8% of total federal funds) to modified direct costs. Since the two methods produce about the same proportion of funds used for indirect costs, every consideration will need to be given to remove the 30% cap and instead use the negotiated rate.
Diversity in Comparable Programs: NSF and NIH Policies and Programs for Broadening Diversity
NSF and NIH are two large comparable research-grants programs that have implemented clear policies for achieving diversity, assigned staff to establish guidelines, and carried out specific measurable activities to ensure progress. Box 5-1 and Box 5-2 describe those diversity programs.
Management of AFRI is an ensemble effort on the part of many of the NPLs at NIFA. All but 10 of the 68 NPLs work on AFRI in some capacity (see Figure 5-3). According to data supplied by NIFA, management of AFRI programs requires 24 full-time equivalents, which are spread out over the 58 NPLs, representing an average time spent on AFRI of about 41%. In fact, one-third of NIFA NPLs spend 30–80% of their time on AFRI management. Thinly spreading the AFRI workload across a host of NIFA NPLs who have other duties seems to lead to a broadly distributed, fragmented management effort. According to both testimony and the present committee members’ own knowledge, NSF and NIH use dedicated program officers to manage their grants programs from RFA through project completion.
NIFA’s difficulty in answering some of the committee’s questions suggested that the diffusion of responsibilities and accountabilities has left a considerable vacuum in knowledge. Such matrix-style management provides cross-functional benefits among disciplines and exploits a broader range of technical expertise, but the customer experience can be severely eroded by the time it takes to navigate the matrix.
One of NSF’s statutory functions is “to strengthen research and education in science and engineering throughout the United States and to avoid undue concentration of such research and education.” Hence, broadening participation has always been one of NSF’s core principles. Today, NSF has a large portfolio of programs specifically designed to increase participation of groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Broadening participation is embedded in NSF’s current strategic plan.a Specific participation-broadening performance goals include the following:
• Preparing a diverse, globally engaged STEM workforce.
• Integrating research with education and building capacity.
• Expanding efforts to broaden participation by underrepresented groups and diverse institutions in all geographic regions in all NSF activities.
• Improving processes to recruit and select highly qualified reviewers and panelists.
Implementation strategies and assessment strategies are outlined in Framework for Action and Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Broadening Participation Projects, respectively. Both strategies incorporate collecting and analyzing diversity data on all NSF’s activities and activities supported by NSF. Broadening participation is also embedded firmly in NSF’s two merit-review criteria, “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts,” which have been in effect since 1997. Implicit in the “Broader Impacts” review criterion is increasing the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, and geography) in STEM.
Details of NSF’s efforts to encourage and incorporate diversity, including program portfolio and documents mentioned above, are posted at its broadeningparticipation website.b
aAvailable online at http://www.nsf.gov/news/strategicplan/nsfstrategicplan_2011_2016.pdf. Accessed December 23, 2013.
bAvailable online at http://www.nsf.gov/od/broadeningparticipation/bp.jsp. Accessed December 23, 2013.
In a study commissioned by NIH, Ginther et al. (2011) found that black applicants for NIH grants were 10% less likely than white applicants to be awarded research funding even when such variables as the applicant’s educational background, training, previous research awards, and publication record are controlled for. The report notes NIH’s long history of working to increase the diversity of the intramural and extramural research workforce and suggests further research into the review process.
Concurrently with the release of the Ginther et al. study, NIH chartered an internal Working Group on Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce (WG) to address the concern about minority-group representation. The WG built on the Ginther et al. data review and determined that, in addition to the black–white disparity, there was a large gap in the number of applications between underrepresented universities and highly funded organizations. Whether the disparity is cause or effect is not clear, but to increase diversity it was clear to the WG that NIH needed to reach out to that underserved community, especially at the young-scientist level. On the basis of the results of its investigation, the WG formulated a broad array of recommendations (referred to at one point as interventions), among them the following:
• Ensure available resources for more systematic tracking and reporting of the outcomes of trainee funding.
• Partner with established minority professional groups to implement mentor networks for underrepresented students to provide career guidance.
• Increase scholarships and fellowships for minority-group members in biomedical research.
• Fund the aggressive improvement of infrastructure in underresourced institutions that have a documented history of supporting underrepresented minority groups.
• Establish a standing working group to identify and combat biases in the NIH peer-review system, and investigate and test internal training programs for diversity awareness.
• Appoint a Chief Diversity Officer and establish an NIH Office of Diversity.
Ultimately, according to Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak in a 2012 presentation, NIH’s goal is “to increase the diversity of the NIH-funded workforce because we have compelling evidence that this will help us accomplish our mission, and to ensure that all applicants are treated fairly in the peer review system.”
The committee identifies several areas for AFRI program improvement and provides recommendations here for overall and specific improvements in program management.
Finding 5-1: AFRI does not have a strategic plan for setting goals and priorities for its overall program. Consequently, AFRI’s priority-setting process lacks an overall strategy and results in RFAs that lack predictability, consistency, and continuity. The lack of predictability and consistency makes it difficult for applicants to anticipate the areas and types of grants that AFRI might offer each year. In addition, the topics identified in RFAs have become too narrowly focused and restrict applicants in submitting innovative proposals that take advantage of opportunities at the cutting edge of science. Although funded projects exhibit a variety of foci, the balance has shifted away from fundamental, long-term research and toward applied, short-term research. The balance has also shifted away from individual-investigator–initiated grants toward more large-scale applied research and extension projects.
NIFA does not have an external scientific advisory council to assist in validating decisions made by NPLs and NIFA scientific leadership. For example, AFRI’s process for setting priorities lacks transparency. Although requests for comments are conducted through RFAs and listening sessions, it is not clear how NIFA evaluates and uses information sources in establishing priorities. Other program-management processes—such as overall portfolio management, award decision-making, and post-award assessment—are not entirely transparent and would benefit from advice of an external advisory body dedicated to helping AFRI.
Finding 5-2: The AFRI program procedures are not clearly defined or accessible and are difficult to assess. The committee requested information about SOPs and best practices for the proposal-review process and post-award management, and it did not appear that those were available. The entire proposal-review and decision-making process is not clearly articulated in an easily accessible manner. For example, basic program information is scattered among three websites; in other agency’s programs, it would typically be found on one. Some procedures (such as post-award management and the proposal-review process) are not defined or described.
Although research priorities for challenge areas are communicated in 3-year cycles, the plans have not always been implemented.
RFAs are voluminous and their content is so dense that potential applicants have difficulty in teasing out the most important information from the boilerplate language. In RFAs, each type of proposal dictates a specified upper limit of budget and award duration. The limits appear to be set arbitrarily. The timing of RFA issuance also needs improvement, and there was not adequate time for applicants to prepare proposals. The time from the announcement of a funding opportunity to the proposal-receipt deadline varies greatly from program to program. Over the course of FY 2009–2012, the time between the issuance of an RFA and the deadline for receipt of letters of intent for all programs ranged from 23 to 109 days, the average being 44 days. The time allotted to applicants between receipt of a response to the letter of intent and submission of a full proposal ranged from less than a month to over 2 months, the majority being around 1.75 months. None of the CAP programs was given 4 months of preparation time (NIFA’s goal), the longest being 14 weeks. There appears to be no trend toward longer preparation time over the 4 years.
There do not seem to be any best practices or SOPs for programmatic post-award management, particularly for the larger, more complex awards. Projects may need redistribution to a number of NPLs for post-award management, depending on the numbers and complexity of foundational challenge, CAP, and standard grants in any particular portfolio. SOPs for programmatic oversight need to be well established, and NPLs need to be evaluated for their ability to provide a high level of program management.
Finding 5-3: The overall review process adheres to underlying principles similar to those of NSF and NIH, and the quality of the review process is comparable with that of other federal funding agencies, such as NSF and NIH. As previously mentioned, the peer review process is the only criterion that AFRI uses in making funding decisions. This practice differs from NSF or NIH where funding decisions are made by the agency taking programmatic goals into consideration along with the scientific merit of proposals as determined by reviewers. NPLs and panel managers exhibit a high level of commitment and dedication to conducting fair and thorough review. That panel managers are not involved in NIFA activities at the higher level (such as strategic planning, priority setting, and
portfolio management) seems to constitute a missed opportunity for NIFA. NIFA’s conflict-of-interest (COI) rules include both those defined by law and those based on NIFA’s own policies, and the latter makes them too restrictive. It does not have a process whereby a waiver can be authorized by the NIFA conflict official in connection with rules that are not legally binding if the reviewer’s involvement is deemed essential. Both NIH and NSF have well-established policies and processes to deal with such cases.
Finding 5-4: AFRI responsibilities are spread widely among 58 NPLs, and the NPLs are not provided sufficient flexibility in managing and balancing the AFRI portfolio to ensure that funded projects align with overall program goals. Many NPLs are involved in both review and program management, and their portfolios are imbalanced. It is not clear that the complexity of the type and size of grants determines how many grants are in an NPL’s portfolio, as the workloads of NPLs appear to vary. Also, funding decisions seem to be based solely on peer-review rankings without consideration of portfolio balance. That occurs despite the fact that it is NIFA policy that reviewers’ comments are advisory and not binding. The funding allocation for each program area is set before the award decision-making process, and this prevents AFRI NPLs and panel managers from translating the opportunities and ideas of investigators presented in their proposals into scientific opportunities.
Finding 5-5: AFRI has neither broadened nor reduced institutional participation beyond that achieved by the NRI. AFRI has achieved diverse participation in its review panels and has awarded training and EPSCoR grants on a generous basis relative to available funding. Because of AFRI’s emphases in agricultural research and extension, land-grant universities are heavily represented in the pool of applicants and awardees. As NIFA communicates the RFAs and information about the AFRI program widely, the small number of proposals from non–land-grant institutions may relate to past congressional constraint on AFRI’s indirect cost recovery. In the past, scientists at some institutions, mostly non–land-grant universities, were discouraged from applying to AFRI programs because of the limit on cost recovery. While this indirect cost limit has increased to a level where it is nearly equal to the average negotiated rates at most institutions, the continued existence of the indirect cost limit
discourages some institutions from even considering applying for AFRI funds. If broader institutional participation is a goal, then NIFA will need to work with Congress to allow standard negotiated indirect cost recovery rates on AFRI grants.
AFRI is asked to support training programs, young researchers, new institutions, and a broad array of agricultural disciplines in addition to the traditional areas. AFRI has followed the same pattern of outreach and funding previously followed by the NRI, relying largely on LGUs to propose and conduct research in traditional agricultural sciences. With inadequate funds, that is a difficult balancing act—one in which constituents often find AFRI to be lacking. Concern was expressed by some in the applicant community that the future of agricultural science is being compromised by poor funding support and that young, innovative, nontraditional researchers will probably turn to other disciplines that are more generously funded.
The committee found it difficult to assess diversity issues because of a lack of necessary data. For example, in its request for background documentation, NIFA asks for voluntary submission of researcher ethnicity data. However, according to management’s response to committee questions, fewer than 10% supply such data, possibly because it represents one more form to fill out. But committee members note that the same data are obtained by NSF and NIH as part of their background information. In some areas, AFRI has succeeded in supporting underrepresented groups of researchers and broadening review-panel diversity, but diversity policies have not been formalized at the leadership level. NSF and NIH have clear, formal internal mandates to seek out and support underrepresented organizations and scientists. Most important, those two agencies also have robust datasets on their RFA outreach and applications and on their grant recipients. Thus, they have been able to conduct analyses to determine weaknesses and put corrective policies in place. It should be noted that those two organizations are sufficiently well funded and have the necessary critical mass to pursue an aggressive diversity strategy.
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