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Competitive, Peer-Reviewed Grants Are Critical to U.S. Agricultural Research
Alan I. Leshner
More of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research funding should go to outside scientists who win competitive grants through a system of peer review, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner told a 7 March Senate hearing on the future of the nation's agricultural research program.
While federal funding formulas have helped produce a fine system of land-grant universities and other important agricultural research facilities over the years, Leshner said, such capacity-building must be accompanied by a greater emphasis on peer-reviewed science, a keystone for progress in agriculture as in other fields.
Leshner, who also serves as executive publisher of the journal Science, testified at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the committee chairman, said agricultural research has produced success stories such as anti-cancer compounds and disease-resistant crops. But it also has been taken for granted, he said, because Americans often taken their food supply for granted.
Leshner and the other witnesses agreed that the nation's agricultural research program needs more money, better coordination and more focus on competitive grants. Under the administration's proposed FY 2008 budget, USDA's R&D budget would fall 10.8 percent from its 2007 final appropriation to $2.0 billion, Leshner said. That would continue a recent significant decline in research spending by the Agriculture Department.
The budget proposal does increase the department's main program for competitively awarded research grants by $66 million to $257 million. But intramural research, which now accounts for 73 percent of USDA's research budget, would still make up most of the spending.
Requests to boost the competitive grants program have not made it through Congress in the past, according to a AAAS budget analysis, but there appeared to be some bipartisan support at the hearing for a change.
Even with the proposed modest increase in the grant program, a large number of worthy proposals would be unlikely to receive funding, according to Leshner. USDA funded only about 16 percent of the 2,312 grant proposals it received from external scientists during FY 2006.
The same pattern is true at other federal agencies as well, where funding decreases in absolute terms have had a substantial impact. The National Science Foundation funded less than 25 percent of the proposals it received during FY 2006 while the National Institutes of Health has been funding only about 20 percent of the proposals it receives. "In aggregate, this represents a rich portfolio of lost research and education opportunities," Leshner told the Senate panel.
Jeffrey D. Armstrong, dean of Michigan State University's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the USDA's current research effort is too inefficient, with overlapping programs for food safety, animal science, water quality and natural resources. Armstrong was co-chair of a panel of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges that has proposed a reorganization of USDA research programs. In a plan called CREATE-21, the panel recommended that future funding increases for USDA research be distributed through competitively-awarded, peer-reviewed grants. But the plan also calls for stable funding of existing intramural research units at USDA.
William Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University in St. Louis, noted that there have been at least five studies over the past 30 years arguing for more competitive, merit-based grants in agricultural research but "traditions are hard to change and their recommendations have been mostly ignored." Danforth, citing the examples of NIH and NSF, said that "America already knows how to manage and fund fundamental research." The agencies award grants based on scientific merit and national need, he said. The same model should be adopted for agricultural research, he said.
Danforth headed a USDA-requested task force that recommended the establishment of one or more national institutes focused on disciplines important to the progress of food and agriculture science. Legislation to create a National Institute for Food and Agriculture has been introduced in the Senate by Harkin, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) and others and in the House by Rep. Collin D. Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture.
Meanwhile, the USDA has come up with some restructuring plans of its own, as outlined at the hearing by Gale Buchanan, the undersecretary for research, education and economics. The plan would consolidate the department's Agricultural Research Service and the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service into a single agency. The plan also calls for increased research spending on biofuels and other bio-based products (through a 10-year, $500 million program) and additional research spending on organic foods and specialty crops as well.
"Science has served as a vitally important foundation for our nation's agriculture system and its ability to provide the nation and the world with its needs for food, fiber and feed," Buchanan said.
But Harkin was skeptical of the proposed consolidation of the department's research agencies, noting that a similar effort had been tried in the late 1970s and later abandoned. He asked Buchanan to provide more details on the consolidation proposal. And regarding the proposed increase in spending on biofuels research, Harkin said, "We've got to take bigger steps than that."
The nation's investment in agricultural research has meant higher productivity and lower prices for consumers, improved land-management practices, and enhancements in food safety and quality, Leshner said. To continue such progress, he said, will require "a sustained commitment to a robust and diverse research portfolio" across a broad spectrum of disciplines, both in USDA and throughout the government.
8 March 2007