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How to Boost Agricultural Research

US land-grant universities need a radical rethink of their priorities.

By | May 1, 2007

The United States is at a crossroads in agricultural research. For 120 years, our land-grant universities and their associated agricultural experiment stations and extension services have succeeded because their collective mission links research, teaching, and outreach. There are cracks in the foundation, however: In 1993, a former land-grant university dean, Harry Kunkel, suggested that knowledge gathered through scholarship was being integrated inadequately. Despite advances in genomics that could be used to identify genetic markers for desired production traits, as well as resistance of plants and animals to parasites, disease, and harsh environments, these failures are even truer today.

Most federal funds to land-grant universities are now used to pay faculty and staff salaries, with little left to support operations and even less to support in-depth hypothesis-driven research. In addition, the culture of providing hard-money support has generated scientists in agricultural experiment stations who have no experience with competitive grants programs, and their areas of research and expertise may not allow them to be successful in obtaining funds from competitive grants programs.

A look at funding priorities suggests why. Just $177 million was allocated to state land-grant universities for fiscal year 2006. Despite the high value of animal agriculture to the US economy ? $110 billion ? only $36 million of USDA?s $106 billion annual budget was allocated to the USDA?s National Research Initiative (NRI) for competitive research grants. Compare that to the $22.4 billion that the NIH allocated to extramural competitive grants programs.

Fortunately, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) plan to reintroduce an act that would create the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Act (NIFA), modeled after the NIH. NIFA would manage up to $1 billion in peer-reviewed grants focused on basic food and agricultural science. This is a good start.

The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges? members, who are the primary recipients of USDA extramural grants, however, have a more ambitious proposal to establish CREATE-21 (?Creating Research, Extension, and Teaching Excellence for the 21st Century?) that would establish NIFA as well as consolidate all USDA intramural and extramural research within it. Importantly, CREATE-21 would focus $2.1 billion annually on peer-reviewed extramural research grants and $2.9 billion to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), other USDA intramural research units, and external funding to land-grant and related academic institutions.

Senator Harkin, as well as the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, have expressed concerns over CREATE-21?s combination of intramural and extramural research into one agency. Harkin has said that doing so would mix two different missions. One goal is to ensure that the new entity establish its own culture, independent of USDA?s intramural and extramural programs. Harkin and William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University in St. Louis, and chair of a USDA task force that recommended the institute?s creation, agree that the new program should be isolated administratively ?to shield it from the vagaries of the budget and Federal bureaucracy.? My own feeling is that NIFA is a better option, because CREATE-21 has the potential to become too cumbersome.

Whatever form they eventually take, NIFA and CREATE-21 can help end the long-standing cultural view that biomedical research is inappropriate to the land-grant mission, an unfortunate attitude shared by many administrators and influential faculty members at land-grant universities. This cultural barrier has caused many agricultural colleges to segregate themselves intellectually and programmatically from colleges of human medicine, veterinary medicine, and basic life sciences. The isolation of animal science programs, for example, has contributed to lack of recruitment of top researchers and teachers who are competitive for funding available for research on agriculturally important animal species. To succeed, agricultural programs in land-grant universities must provide mechanisms to encourage scientists to think ?integration of scholarship? all the time.

Fuller W. Bazer is associate vice president for research and holds the O.D. Butler Chair in Animal Science at Texas A&M University.

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