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Agriculture in the FY 2018 Omnibus: Competitive Grants Boosted, But Other Gains Limited

USDA's competitive Agriculture and Food Research Initiative remains favored amid modest other changes for ag science funding.

See Also: USDA in the AAAS R&D Dashboard | Complete Data Tables

While the FY 2018 omnibus contained some enormous increases for certain agencies, the agricultural science realm will have to content itself with a somewhat more mixed bag with some flat funding, some modest increases, and a few targeted spending boosts that rival the gains for research in other agencies and disciplines. The USDA portion of the omnibus contains grist for differing reactions: a pessimist might focus on the fact that many research programs will see little or no gain in FY 2018 in spite of the fact that Congress gave itself literally tens of billions in extra dollars to spend. An optimist might focus on those few large program increases, and the more general fact that Congress ultimately did protect USDA research from the big cuts sought by the White House.

Bottom Line: USDA R&D would increase by 3.1 percent in the omnibus to reach roughly $2.7 billion in FY 2018, according to current AAAS estimates.

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What's Increasing: One clear winner: the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), USDA's extramural competitive grants program. Housed within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), AFRI has emerged as a clear priority for appropriators over the past several years. The omnibus increased AFRI funding by $25 million to reach $400 million total in FY 2018: still shy of the $700 million for which AFRI was originally authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, but also 33 percent higher than AFRI's 2010 appropriation after inflation. No other USDA research program has seen such growth over that time (see chart). AFRI even managed to gain additional funding in FY 2013, the sequestration year, when virtually every other federal science program was dealing with across-the-board spending cuts. 

Funding was also boosted for activities around USDA's Census of Agriculture, the federal government's quinquennial tally of farmers and farm producers. Omnibus funding for the census reached $63.4 million, a 50 percent increase above FY 2017. On the other hand, funding for other activities in the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which orchestrates the census, was held essentially flat.

NIFA's Sustainable Agriculture grants program was increased to $35 million, a 29.6 percent increase. Most other increases for USDA research programs were modest in terms of dollars or in relative increases, or both.

What's Protected: Research facilities owned and operated by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). As part of the deep cuts proposed in last year's budget, the Administration had recommended closing 17 ARS labs and worksites in several states. In the omnibus, appropriators explicitly rejected this recommendation, and instead ratcheted up the ARS facilities budget by 41.2 percent to reach $141 million total. This will allow the agency to continue working through modernization and construction projects on its six-year-old facilities priority list (PDF).

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What's Flat: The Economic Research Service; and most of the major capacity grant programs administered by NIFA, which provide funding for research and extension throughout the U.S. via formulas embedded in law. The largest of these programs including Hatch Act funding for agricultural research stations; Evan-Allen research grants for historically black land-grant colleges; McIntire-Stennis forestry research grants; and Smith-Lever grants for extension activities.

The omnibus also directs USDA to spend no less than FY 2017 levels on efforts to ensure an available qualified workforce for the National Bio- and Agro-defense Facility, under construction in Kansas with an expected operational date early the next decade.

Other Notes: While on the face of it, the U.S. Forest Service's Forest and Rangeland Research funding account received a modest 2.9 percent increase in the omnibus to $297 million, the picture is a little more complicated. Up until this year, legislators had also provided separate funding for research to support the National Fire Plan, a multiagency strategy to deal with severe wildland fires. This funding, which amounted to near $20 million in FY 2017, was granted in a separate account but typically transferred to the primary Forest Service research account later.

In the FY 2018 omnibus, legislators did away with this rather artificial separation, and instead combined these funding streams into one place — but without adding sufficient new funding to fully account for the move. Accounting for the $20 million alloted through this once-separate funding stream in FY 2017, comparable dollars for forest research are actually being reduced in the omnibus, by about 3.7 percent below last year. This comes as legislators also raised concerns that Forest Service research priorities are misaligned with forest system needs.

In Historical Context: Per AAAS estimates, omnibus spending would leave USDA R&D approximately 16.5 percent above sequestration-level spending in FY 2013, but 10.6 percent below the recent peak in FY 2010.

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Photo Credit: USDA/ARS