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House Appropriations: Proposed Boosts for Agricultural R&D Not Embraced

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The debate focused little on research at today's House Appropriations Committee markup of the FY 2016 Agriculture spending bill, which was approved via a voice vote. The Administration had flagged a handful of priorities for large R&D-related spending increases at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the FY 2016 budget request, but those funding priorities don't appear to have been entirely embraced by appropriators, though the constraints on discretionary spending this year certainly factor into Congressional priority-setting. Overall spending in the $20.7 billion Agriculture bill is one percent below current FY 2015 levels and roughly five percent below the request.

USDA R&D is primarily carried out by two agencies: intramural research is performed by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and extramural research is funded through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The Administration is seeking $2.9 billion for USDA R&D in FY 2016, good for a 17.9 percent increase above FY 2015 levels, though current AAAS estimates suggest House appropriators will grant far less, trimming USDA R&D by 1.4 percent (see chart).

Among agency plans, ARS had intended to step up investments in its research facilities, including $113.7 million to complete design and construction of the Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory in Athens, GA. For FY 2015 appropriators provided some funding (as shown) to begin this project, which is number one on the docket in the ARS facilities strategy (PDF); other facilities would also receive funding for modernization and renovation. Appropriators scaled the request back to match FY 2015 levels, however.

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On the extramural front, the Administration had slated the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the lead competitive research program, for a major 38.5 percent boost, including $33.5 million to fund a portion of the President's new antimicrobial resistance initiative; and other amounts for pollinator (i.e. honey bee) health research and range of other topics. NIFA also repeated last year's (unsuccessful) request for funding for a pair of public-private "innovation institutes," multidisciplinary entities funded at $80 million total and focusing on biomanufacturing and nanocellulosics. But the committee provided no funds for this latter proposal, and a much smaller increase for AFRI as shown, including only $11 million for antimicrobial work. Major formula funding programs also would remain flat under the House bill, mostly as requested.

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ARS was also included in the aforementioned antimicrobial resistance initiative, to receive $7 million, but the committee was silent on this.

The Administration has issued a letter (PDF) to the committee voicing several objections to the bill, including specific mention of the research program funding levels described. The White House will likely issue a veto threat related to overall spending levels.

Elsewhere at USDA, the Forest Service is funded through a different appropriations bill, the Interior and Environment bill, which at the time of this writing is under consideration on the House floor (H.R. 2822). That bill would make fairly large reductions to the agency's Forest and Rangeland Research account; the President has threatened a veto (PDF).

In historical terms, the House Agriculture bill would keep overall USDA R&D near pre-sequestration levels, but over 15 percent below where it was a decade ago.

Cover image credit: USDA Flickr