Today House appropriators completed their first full-committee markup of FY 2021 appropriations, sending the Agriculture, Veterans Affairs, and State bills to the House floor for further consideration. The Agriculture bill, adopted by a voice vote, provides modest increases for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research activities, in the 2-4% range. Most USDA research line items had been up for reductions in the White House FY 2021 budget request (see below).
One exception is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), USDA's competitive grants program, which has seen substantial funding growth in recent years. The White House had sought a $175 million increase to $600 million total for AFRI. But House appropriators are only willing to provide a $10 million increase above FY 2020.
See also the AAAS appropriations dashboard.
The committee provided $35 million for a new initiative on precision agriculture research, as the White House requested. The bill also provides $4 million for a "Farm of the Future," a competitively established test bed at a land grant institution. The initiative will "will integrate applied research in precision agriculture, smart automation, resilient agricultural practices, applied socioeconomics, and improved crop varieties from advanced genomics and phenotyping," according to report language.
The committee requires USDA to produce a strategic plan for the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA), a new office authorized in the most recent Farm Bill. AGARDA will fund high-risk research using DARPA-style hiring and contracting flexibility. (July 24 Update: and this direction was reinforced by a House floor amendment as the bill was adopted in a minibus by the full chamber).
The committee directs the National Academies to assess the impacts of Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) relocation out of the D.C. region. Both agencies were relocated to Kansas City in a controversial move last year, with significant effects of staff attrition and reported morale. The committee calls these two agencies “shells of their former selves,” and directs the Academies to hold symposia to assess agency activities and operations
The committee rejects the broad requested cuts to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) research, and mandates intramural and extramural research be sustained at least at FY 2020 levels. The committee did not provide $50 million requested for ARS facilities construction and modernization, including funding for Beltsville facility work.
In addition to the $35 million for precision agriculture research mentioned above, the bill includes a requested $8 million for the animal disease research program at the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF). The bill does not, however, provide the requested $15 million increase for NBAF operations and maintenance, and instead seeks information on cost drivers.
At NIFA, all small research, capacity, and educations programs on an array of topics are protected from cuts or elimination, and in some cases increased. This particularly includes grants and scholarships at HBCUs, tribal colleges, and Hispanic institutions, many of which would see much larger relative gains; and programs on aquaculture, sustainable agriculture, and other topics.
House leadership may pursue floor votes on the bill soon, while Senate timing is to be determined.