March 17, 2017
Agricultural research is little understood, but an incredibly important part of our food and agricultural economies. It is through agricultural research programs that we are able to develop more resilient seeds and crops, learn more about how to manage soil health, and conduct on-farm research experiments that help farmers and ranchers be more effective and efficient. This week, the House Agriculture Committee, which is hosting a series of hearings in preparation for the 2018 Farm Bill, invited experts from the agricultural research community to testify on the needs and impacts of the industry. This was the second hearing held this month by the House’s Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Specialty Crops, and Research; the first focused on the needs of specialty crop producers.
The witnesses for this week’s research hearing included representatives from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), the National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research (NC-FAR), and the Danforth Center, a private research institution focused primarily on plant genetics.
One common thread amongst all those who spoke at yesterday’s hearing was the recognition that additional investments in agricultural research are desperately needed in order for America’s farmers and ranchers to adequately confront the challenges of a changing climate and shifting agricultural markets. Several Subcommittee members echoed this sentiment and stated their concern that our country’s investments in agricultural research have fallen behind not only other sectors of research (like health and energy), but other countries as well (e.g., China, India, and Brazil).
Topics that provoked spirited discussion amongst members and witnesses included: How best to grow the domestic agriculture research budget; where to focus that growth; and the roles and funding needs of our nation’s land grant universities, Cooperative Extension Service, and competitive grants programs.
Competitive vs. Capacity Research Funding
Several of the witnesses spoke about the continued need to support research and infrastructure at our nation’s land-grant universities – primarily through sustained support for capacity, or “formula,” funding. Formula funding is awarded to land-grant universities on a non-competitive basis. Jay Akridge, the Agriculture Dean at Purdue University, testified on behalf of APLU and highlighted in his testimony the important role that public researchers play.
Mr. Akridge also made the case for continued support for Cooperative Extension, as did the NC-FAR witness Richard Wilkins, a soybean farmer from Delaware and Chairman of the American Soybean Association.
The bulk of the hearing was focused on the need to increase support for competitive grants funding. All witnesses spoke about the highly competitive nature of the federal research grants offered through scientific agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). NIFA was cited as one of the most competitive agencies, with an application success rate between 10 to 20 percent for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which is NIFA’s largest competitive grants program.
James Carrington, the President of the St. Louis-based Danforth Center, explained to the Subcommittee that roughly two thirds of agricultural scientists aren’t currently able to secure federal funding to pursue their research ideas. Without increased investment in agricultural research, these researchers, and their projects, will continue to languish.
In all the discussion of competitive research grant programs during the hearing, AFRI was the only one mentioned by name. While this is not surprising, as it is by far the largest competitive grants program administered by USDA, it is disappointing that there was no mention made of the dozens of other competitive grant programs, which fill important agricultural research needs that AFRI cannot.
A prime example of one of these programs is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, a long-standing USDA competitive grants program that has been at the forefront of innovation in research and extension activities and for nearly 30 years. SARE is also USDA’s only farmer-driven research program, which means it is more adept at identifying the needs of family farmers and uses their input on research projects to ensure results that will work in practice, not just in theory. Despite the program’s demonstrated efficiency and track record of advancing cutting-edge research innovations, SARE has been woefully underfunded for years; the program currently is not funded at even half of its authorized amount. As a result, USDA is able to fund only six percent of eligible pre-proposals for research and education grants.
Making Improvements to the Grants Process
Witnesses at the hearing were particularly interested in discussing ways Congress could improve the grants administration process and streamline the approval process of research grants and proposals. One interesting suggestion was to require pre-proposals more extensively for NIFA grant programs; this would be a potential way to screen out proposals early in the review process that aren’t likely to be funded.
Another suggestion was to reorganize the way that agricultural research is funded through USDA, paying particular attention to how to better elevate competitive grants. Mr. Carrington from the Danforth Center suggested that Congress look at NIH as a funding model. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) believes that where improvements can made to the administration of grants programs, they should be. However, we would also emphasize that any changes made to how research funding is administered should also ensure that non-competitive funding sources, such as capacity, extension or intramural research funding, are not sacrificed in the process.
The last area of concern raised regarding the granting process was the matching funds requirement for all competitive research grants that was established in the last farm bill. The private sector witness described the matching grants requirement for non-land grant research applicants as a discriminatory element that puts private organizations at a competitive disadvantage. NSAC has long-opposed the matching requirements because of its disproportionately adverse effect on the success of non-profit driven research.
Future for Agriculture Research
As the 2018 Farm Bill debate ramps up, many funding and policy decisions will need to be made regarding Research Title programs. NSAC will continue to advocate for increased investments in agricultural research – including dedicated funding for organic and sustainable agriculture research – through both the Farm Bill reauthorization process and the Annual Appropriations debate that will determine USDA funding levels for FY 2018.
With the release of the President’s first budget proposal to Congress earlier this week, NSAC, along with our partners in the research community, realize that we have our work cut out for us. While scant on details (hence the nickname “skinny budget”), the President’s proposal indiscriminately slashes USDA’s budget, including its budget for agricultural research. Only funds for AFRI were spared from the chopping block.
USDA research programs that are targeted for significant cuts in the President’s budget include:
Accounting for the programs that are being left intact as well as those that would be effectively eliminated, USDA would be left with roughly 50 percent of its current budget for all other discretionary programs if this budget proposal were followed. This kind of draconian approach to budget making would have devastating ripple effects on the entire farm economy and the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture as a whole.
NSAC pledges to stand strong with the research community against any cuts to federal research programs. We are committed to continuing to work with our champions in Congress to provide the necessary research funding to support a more sustainable food and farm system.