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New Report Identifies Changes Needed for USDA Agriculture Research

September 12, 2014

Earlier this week, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report calling for increased funding along with major changes to the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative — USDA’s largest agriculture research program.

The report was commissioned by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which is the federal agency responsible for awarding extramural research grants to academic, private, non-profit, and government research institutions.  NIFA also manages funding for our country’s Land Grant University system and Cooperative Extension Service.

The NRC report, Spurring Innovation in Food and Agriculture, includes findings and recommendations from a lengthy review of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.  AFRI is a competitive grants program administered by NIFA that provides over $300 million in funding to support research projects that are relevant to a variety of agricultural issues — including challenges facing rural communities, local food producers, and small and medium-sized farmers, as well as renewable energy, nutrition, and food security issues.

AFRI was first created in the 2008 Farm Bill, and replaced earlier competitive grant programs, such as the National Research Initiative and the Initiative for Future Agricultural and Food Systems.

While the report on the whole is not overly visionary or ambitious in transforming the scope and direction of the AFRI program, it does set forth a priority list of key changes that are needed to further strengthen and improve the effectiveness of this relatively young research program.

Key Findings

The NRC report presents several key findings and recommendations on how to improve the efficiency, structure, and impact of the AFRI program primarily through changes in the way the program is administered by NIFA.

Funding – The NRC report notes that there is a “continued weakness in the public commitment to food and agricultural R&D” – which includes federal investments in the AFRI program.  The program is authorized to receive up to $700 million per year from Congressional appropriators, but has yet to receive more than $316 million in any given year.  The report notes that NIFA first implemented AFRI under the assumption that total program funding would reach authorized levels within several years.

If funded at this amount, AFRI would have been better positioned to support larger, multi-million dollar research projects that sought to deliver significant impacts and innovations related to key challenges facing agriculture.  However, with funding levels for AFRI not yet reaching even half of its authorized amount, the NRC report stresses that AFRI has not yet been adequately given the resources needed to meet current and future challenges facing farmers and consumers alike, and calls for an increased investment in AFRI that is “commensurate with the program’s legislatively mandated scope.”

Grant Size and Topics – The report is highly critical of both the five societal “challenge areas” created within the AFRI program, and also the larger Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) grants that have historically funded very large, multi-institutional, interdisciplinary research projects.  The report recommends that both of these grant areas be eliminated and the program realigned solely based on the six legislatively mandated research topics:

  1. Plant health and production and plant products
  2. Animal health and production and animal products
  3. Food safety, nutrition, and health
  4. Bioenergy, natural resources, and environment
  5. Agriculture systems and technology
  6. Agriculture economics and rural communities

The report also stresses that priorities should be driven by researchers themselves (not USDA), and that program Request For Applications (RFAs) should be less prescriptive and more flexible to allow USDA to fund research on emerging issues facing the agricultural sector, and as identified by the researchers out in the field.

Finally, the report recommends that fundamental, or basic research be given priority over more applied research that addresses a specific problem or seeks to be readily translated and used by farmers and others in the field.  NSAC disagrees with this recommendation, and believes that AFRI has an important role to play in funding both basic and applied research.

Program Leadership and Strategic Planning – The report is highly critical of the current operational and management structure for the AFRI program, and says that AFRI is “unnecessarily complex” and that the program appears to be “orphaned in that there is no clear line of leadership, strategy, and policy.”  Further, there is currently no clearly articulated plan that guides AFRI’s priority-setting process.  The NRC review panel recommends that a director position be established for AFRI in order to lead, manage, and be accountable for AFRI’s performance, and also that a strategic plan be developed that identifies priorities for AFRI’s overall program goals for meeting them and a framework for assessing the program’s progress.

Additionally, the report recommends that an external scientific advisory council be established to advise NIFA on the strategic direction of AFRI and provide guidance to National Program Leaders on programmatic decisions.  While there is an advisory board already established that advises USDA on its general research priorities, there is no specific board dedicated to AFRI or NIFA’s competitive grant programs.

Outcomes and Impact – The report also notes that NIFA currently lacks a sufficiently robust data management system and clearly defined metrics for measuring program impacts (including outputs and outcomes), and recommends that NIFA develop the capability to regularly evaluate AFRI in order to assess the economic and social impacts of the research that AFRI supports and the broader value and public benefit that AFRI provides.

Finally, the report is highly critical of the new matching funds requirement established by the new farm bill that requires non-land grant institutions to match AFRI grant funds on a dollar for dollar basis.  NSAC has opposed this language since it was first included in the draft farm bill text developed by the House Agriculture Committee, and agrees with the NRC reports statement that this new requirement is “counterproductive to the goal of attracting the broadest array of the nation’s top scientific talent to research and to bringing non-traditional and novel approaches and solutions for food and agricultural challenges.”

Specifically, this new requirement will likely impact non-profit research institutions the most, since many NGOs have limited capacity to secure matching funds in the amount needed to conduct agricultural research. The NRC report recommends that NIFA should compile data in order to determine the impact of the new requirement on non-land-grant applicants participating in the AFRI program.

Missing Elements

There are several issues that the NRC review panel did not choose to address in their report, including the long-standing issue of eligibility for integrated projects that has impacted many non-academic and non-profit research institutions interested in applying for AFRI funds.  NIFA’s current interpretation of the AFRI statute limits eligibility for integrated AFRI projects (or those that include a research, education, and extension component) solely to academic institutions.  This means that non-profit organizations, who are often the most capable and best positioned to conduct outreach and training to farmers, are unable to even apply for entire grant programs within AFRI. The NRC report is largely silent on this issue, and misses a key opportunity to rectify a long-standing issue that has hampered the effectiveness of AFRI’s integrated grant programs.

The report also does not make any observations or recommendations about the larger vision and direction for the AFRI program, and how to leverage research funded through this program in the most strategic way possible to truly advance agricultural research innovations.  Instead, the review panel states that this issue is outside of the scope of their review and simply recommends that a strategic plan and advisory council be developed to fill this need.

To read the full NRC report, click here to download a free copy.

Categories: Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

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