Basic Research in USDA?

December 29th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

As prospects for growth most every part of the federal budget look dim, including science, scientists and policy makers are looking to game the system to come out ahead in the sub-zero-sum budget game. A good example can be found in the efforts over the past years (or decades, depending on how one measures such things) to create an institutional home for basic research in USDA.

A group of scientists proposed in a report (PDF) last summer that the USDA create a National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) modeled on NIH and NSF. NIFA would focus on fundamental research that may or may not confer practical benefits, so long as it advances knowledge. The proposal recommends funding focused on external peer-reviewed grants, growing to $1 billion/year after five years and a governance structure of scientists and for scientists. One of the justifications given for creating a NIFA is the tradition of earmarking (PDF) USDA research funds, which means that politicians not scientists determine who gets funded. The report recommends that NIFA funding should be “new” money – it should not come from existing USDA or science programs. R&D at USDA totals $2.4 billion in 2005, and USDA was one of only a few agencies to see a substantial increase in 2005 (for analysis see the AAAS (PDF)).

In November, four senators introduced a bill last month to create the NIFA. It seems that the Senators are under the impression that the fundamental research will lead to direct economic and health benefits to the country. Who knows if NIFA will succeed politically in 2005, but it does seem clear that if implemented, NIFA will face some challenges connecting its basic research aims with expectations of relevance, not unlike NSF and NIH. Its champions will be well served to develop a more sophisticated talking point than the following: “”We’re not totally naïve. We recognize that everything depends on budget, and budgets are very tight. On the other hand, I would argue that agriculture is terribly important to our country, everything from balancing trade, to protecting our environment, to food safety and anti-terrorism.”

For an excellent background on research in USDA, see this 1981 OTA report, An Assessment of the United States Food and Agricultural Research System.

We should expect to see more institutional innovation (compare Proposition 71) as budgets for science are expected to be much tighter in the coming years than they were over the past decade. Such innovations can serve as valuable laboratories to learn about different strategies for supporting science to serve public objectives. If it is well conceived (which it does not seem to be at present), NIPA could be a positive innovation for conducting societally-relevant agricultural research.

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