Advertisement

Can USDA's NIFA be ag's NIH?

Historically short-shrifted by federal funding bodies, academic agricultural research was recently promised redemption: a federal funding agency of its very own that will award competitive grants in a fashion similar to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But will the new agency, the linkurl:National Institute of Food and Agriculture;http://www.csrees.usda.gov/ (NIFA), be able to put public-sector agricultural science on an equal footing with biomedical research? Technicians measure switch

By | October 27, 2009

Historically short-shrifted by federal funding bodies, academic agricultural research was recently promised redemption: a federal funding agency of its very own that will award competitive grants in a fashion similar to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But will the new agency, the linkurl:National Institute of Food and Agriculture;http://www.csrees.usda.gov/ (NIFA), be able to put public-sector agricultural science on an equal footing with biomedical research?
Technicians measure switchgrass,
a plant studied for use as
a biomass source for biofuels

Image: Peggy Greb, USDA
NIFA, to be administrated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), was modeled after the government's other large science funding agencies -- the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, and especially the NIH. Its mission is to fund research addressing several pressing issues ranging from increasing sustainable food production to bioenergy, food safety, and global climate change while encouraging a renaissance in agricultural research at universities across the country. Unlike university-based biomedical research, however, which in general has enjoyed robust funding in the recent past, academic agricultural research has withered under a USDA that has traditionally meted out small, non-competitive grants to land grant universities, often at the behest of US legislators trying to direct funds to their home districts or states. The result is an intellectual landscape where much of the knowledge surrounding plant science and agriculture resides not in universities but in industry, locked behind the walls of large agribusinesses. "We're starting at a different point with NIFA than the one at which we find ourselves at NIH," said linkurl:Keith Yamamoto,;http://yamamotolab.ucsf.edu/keith.html a University of California, San Francisco, molecular biologist who serves as an advisor to the NIH and led the agency's recent efforts to revamp its peer-review process. "The current tilt in the fundamental knowledge about plants, their growth, and development is on the industry side and I would say that it's precisely because of the lack of resources on the public side," he told __The Scientist__. "It's the basic, fundamental information that needs to be in the realm of the public sector." The disparity between private and public agriculture research becomes apparent when one considers data from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Lists of recent patent holders in technology classes related to biomedicine -- surgery, drugs, prosthesis, etc. -- are replete with universities, which typically hold patents generated by publicly-funded research. Agricultural patents from 2004-2008, however, are overwhelmingly held by large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta. In the USPTO's linkurl:"Multicellular Living Organisms and Unmodified Parts Thereof and Related Processes";http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ido/oeip/taf/tecasg/800_tor.htm technology class (which includes genetically modified organisms), six companies -- Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Monsanto Technology, Stine Seed Farm, DuPont, Syngenta, and Mertec -- were awarded a total of 255 patents in 2008, while the Regents of the University of California system, which held the most patents in that technology class out of any university or university system last year, was awarded only six. Other technology classes relating to agriculture, such as linkurl:"Plant Protecting and Regulating Compositions";http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ido/oeip/taf/tecasg/504_tor.htm and linkurl:"Planting,";http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ido/oeip/taf/tecasg/111_tor.htm have been devoid of university-held patents over the past 4-5 years. That balance must be corrected, experts say, and NIFA may be key. "What's been missing so long in USDA is the forcing of competitive research ideas," said linkurl:Martin Apple,;http://cssp.us/ president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents who has been involved with the formation of NIFA since Congress created it in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. "The ace in the hole at NIFA is peer-reviewed research." linkurl:Rajiv Shah,;http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/!ut/p/_s.7_0_A/7_0_1OB?contentidonly=true&contentid=bios_rshah.xml USDA's undersecretary for research, education, and economics, told __The Scientist__ that he disagreed with the premise that more knowledge is locked up in the private agriculture sector compared to the situation in biomedical science. Indeed, he said, there's plenty of hope for public-private collaborations in agriculture, but such partnerships have been relatively underutilized -- a state that the availability of NIFA funding can help change. "The USDA hadn't been using these tools of deep collaboration," Shah said. "We're going to do all these things very differently. We are going to engage the private sector much more than we have in the past." But Shah stopped short of revealing specific strategies for how to spark such collaboration. "Monsanto scientists typically do not apply for research grants from government agencies, but collaborate with hundreds of academic scientists whose research is supported by federal funding," David Fischhoff, Monsanto's technology and strategy development lead, wrote in an email to __The Scientist__. "We see the formation of NIFA as a positive development for science, agriculture and farmers." The private sector seems to recognize the benefit of NIFA, but it's unclear whether the new pool of money will encourage big ag companies to increase their level of collaboration with academic researchers -- a strategy that Big Pharma tends to employ more vigorously. Large agriculture companies do not typically apply for USDA funding directly, in part "because of the proprietary rights problems that make it difficult to accept the terms of a federal grant," said linkurl:Robin Schoen,;http://dels.nas.edu/banr/index.shtml director of the National Academies of Science's Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. linkurl:Roger Beachy,;http://www.nifa.usda.gov/about/AllUnits/staff_view.cfm?record_id=3762 NIFA's new director, added that engaging the private sector in publicly funded research consortia will take time and tact. "I know that there's a degree of trust that can be built while still maintaining intellectual property and the segregation necessary," he said at NIFA's official launch on Oct 8. The agency's budget of more than $1 billion is a good first step towards achieving its goals, said Apple. "If NIFA puts a billion dollars into the university system, it's going to have a huge impact," he said. That amount, though a huge step forward in competitive granting by the USDA, is comparable to the R&D budget of just one of the agribusiness giants -- Monsanto linkurl:spent;http://www.monsanto.com/pdf/pubs/2008/annual_report.pdf $980 million on R&D in FY2008 -- and is dwarfed by the annual budgets of NIH ($30.5 billion in 2009) and NSF ($6.9 billion in 2009). Even with all of the challenges that lie ahead for NIFA, Yamamoto agreed that the agency is a promising prospect for expanding the reach of agricultural research. If NIFA "can move in a way that establishes some public/private collaboration such that some of the information locked up in the private side can be shared," he said, "I would congratulate them and maybe that can establish a model that we could take advantage of on the health side."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:How to Boost Agricultural Research;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53120/
[May 2007]*linkurl:New agricultural research institute planned;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/52943/
[19th March 2007]*linkurl:A USDA basic science institute?;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22497/
[16th November 2004]
Advertisement

Comments

Avatar of: R. H. Richardson

R. H. Richardson

Posts: 4

October 27, 2009

Ag and Medicine are "cash cows" for industries. There is a role, but it's easily seduced into nonpublic benefits for corporate welfare and higher public expenses. For health care, it drugs and patents. For ag it's patents and unsustainable methods with a high cost to producers. \n\nAlternatives exist, but less well known. They don't make the "news" and aren't advertised since the best choices are supporting "health" in less expensive ways than typical medicine, and "sustainability" in agriculture without patents.
Avatar of: ROBERT KILLOREN

ROBERT KILLOREN

Posts: 5

October 27, 2009

Food security, sustainability, and distribution are essential to the welfare of everyone on this planet. A strong economy, health care, national security are impossible if there isn't enough food and water and a healthy environment. For too long agriculture has been treated as a second-class science. The once great land grant system of research and extension that was the envy of the world has been weakened by shrinking federal support and the winds of political expediency. Our nation and our world need a renewed and reinvigorated program of R&D in the agricultural sciences and NIFA could be the start of that effort. A stronger better funded competitive grant program presents no threat to land grant institutions - but rather a new opportunity to lead the way.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

October 27, 2009

Where are they going to get the brains from?
Avatar of: Jaydee Hanson

Jaydee Hanson

Posts: 2

October 27, 2009

This is an important mission, but Roger Beachy is the wrong person for the job. I hope that the Obama Administration will reconsider its support of Roger Beachy as head of the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Until last month, Beachy was the head of Monsanto?s de facto nonprofit research arm. In his capacity as head of NIFA, Roger Beachy will be in charge of the nation?s agricultural research agenda and purse strings for the next six years. Given Beachy?s previous career running the Danforth Plant Science Center, a nonprofit closely linked to and funded by Monsanto, I fear that billions more in government funding will be funneled into agricultural biotechnology and chemical pesticide research while the real solutions to our growing agricultural problems, provided by sustainable and organic agriculture research, will suffer from a lack of federal funding and attention. NIFA itself will suffer if the sustainable agriculture community starts out suspicious of its work because of this ill chosen appointee.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 85

October 27, 2009

\nThis is a HIGHLY MISLEADING article. \n\nThe clear implication in this article is that NIFA is conceptually brand-new, and that previously there was no competitive research grants program for academic agricultural research. \n\nTHIS IS NOT TRUE!!!!! There were competitive grants programs at USDA since at least the early 1980's (if not earlier) -- although they did undergo name changes. Since at least 1991, it was called the National Research Initiative (NRI), and it was run out of the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. This highly-respected competitive research grants program at the USDA supported important academic research in basic agricultural science (including plant research, farm animal research, soil and rhizosphere research, etc.). Some of its permanent program officers were drawn from other Federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, and some of them subsequently moved to other Federal agencies such as NSF and NIH (in fact, Dr. Sally Rocky, who is currently NIH's Acting Deputy Director for Extramural Research, was for many years a program officer at the NRI at USDA). \n\nFor most of its existence, and certainly for its last two decades, the dollar amounts of funds available for academic agricultural-related research was a pittance (especially compared to NIH). In 2007, the last year for which NRI operated (it was not reauthorized in the 2008 USDA legislation), it was only able to spend about $164 million, which was enough to make relatively small awards to 451 proposals. However, that $164M was better than -- and more than -- nothing. I certainly hope that the new administrative unit will provide funding at levels that are substantially greater than what USDA has provided previously for competitive basic academic research.\n\nFor more details about the NRI (only going back to 1991, when the competitive grants program was renamed NRI), please go to the following URL:\n\nhttp://www.nifa.usda.gov/funding/nri/nri_about.html \n\n
Avatar of: Thomas Moritz

Thomas Moritz

Posts: 5

October 27, 2009

The need for an NIH-style "national Institute" to focus on the environment and environmental health has been clear to many of us for many years -- aside from the obvious economic motives -- and the perception that "food" per se is our problem -- I wonder... How amazing that food is accepted as a problem that merits this attention but air and water not?

October 27, 2009

\n\nThank you anonymous for the in formation on the NRI. I was just writing a note to The Scientist asking for recent history of launching NIFA. \n\nThere appears to be, however, some legitimate concerns on appropriate leadership for such an instrumental initiative. I wonder if this is a definitive appointment or there is still a possibility for providing names of additional candidates that the Obama?s administration could take into account. Just a thought because many of us don?t know enough. I agree with the comments that the mission is very important and very much needed.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 85

October 27, 2009

I was rather surprised to see the comment from Jaydee Hanson in which he indicated that he felt that Dr. Beachy was not the best choice for the position.\n\nMy surprise was based on two things: 1, the tone of the article, which seemed -- how shall I put it without using the same tone myself -- strong? ; and 2, the reason provided by Hanson, which suggests to me that Mr. Hanson knows very little about the basic plant research community and even less about Dr. Beachy.\n\nI want to make it perfectly clear that I do not know Mr. Hanson, either personally or professionally, and I had never heard of him prior to reading his comment on this forum. I do not know, and certainly do not understand, the true basis for his comments or opinion. Furthermore, although I had, for more than two decades prior to my recent retirement, substantial professional awareness of Dr. Beachy , I do not know him personally, and my professional contacts with Dr. Beachy were extremely limited; in fact, I would not be surprised if Dr. Beachy would not even recognize my name. However, I can state that, in my pre-retirement professional capacity, I knew of Dr. Beachy as one of many basic research scientists of significant standing in his community. I am not biased either ?for? or ?against? Dr. Beachy?s appointment to his new position at the NIFA. Nonetheless, I consider Mr. Hanson?s comments not only inappropriate but in fact baseless. \n\nIn support of my contention, I offer the following facts which I have taken from Wikipedia (warts and all ? e.g., ?CPMýR? which is a typo on Wikipedia) (although most of these facts were well known to me previously): \n\n1. Dr. Beachy's academic career: "After completing his PhD, he became a member of the Biology Department at Washington University in St. Louis from 1978 to 1991, where he was Professor and Director of the Center for Plant Science and Biotechnology. From 1991 to 1998, he headed the Division of Plant Biology at The Scripps Research Institute, a leading biomedical research center in La Jolla, California. Since January 1999, he is the president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri."\n\n2. Dr. Beachy?s biotechnological and basic research credentials: ?Roger N. Beachy is an expert in plant virology and biotechnology of plants. He established principles for the genetic engineering of plants, that make them resistant to viral diseases. His research at Washington University in St. Louis, in collaboration with Monsanto Company, led to the development of the world?s first genetically modified food crop, a variety of tomato that was modified for resistance to virus disease. He demonstrated pathogen-derived resistance in plants and produce the first disease-resistant transgenic plant. He also showed that by transferring and expressing the coat protein gene of a virus in plants (coat protein-mediated resistance - CPMýR), these transgenic plants become resistant to viral infection. His discovery of the CPMR led to the development of virus-resistant varieties of potato, tomato, pepper, cucumber, squash, sugar beets, papaya and plum.?\n\n3. Dr. Beachy?s awards and honors: ?Roger N. Beachy has received several awards and honors in his life. In 2001, he was awarded the Wolf Prize in Agriculture along with James E. Womack of Texas A&M University "for the use of recombinant DNA technology, to revolutionize plant and animal sciences, paving the way for applications to neighboring fields" ... He is also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.?\n\nI must add that immediately prior to posting this comment, I ?Googled? Mr. Hanson. What I learned about him in that way has left me even more perplexed about his motivation for posting his comment. \n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 85

October 27, 2009

\n\nDear Rafaela: \n\nI am the "anonymous poster" who posted both the history of the competitive research program at USDA and also the response to Mr. Hanson's comment regarding Dr. Beachy. \n\nI did not see your post prior to writing my post regarding Dr. Beachy's qualifications. However, your post certainly brought home to me how incredibly easily people who lack specific knowledge or information can be swayed by the strongly expressed opinions of others. \n\nI want to urge you to never, ever take for granted anything that others say or write. There is always the possibility that someone may put forward statements or propaganda in support of a specific agenda which may not be in accordance with your own agenda or beliefs. Please, I beg you, always take the "scientific" approach of getting reliable facts for yourself before accepting anyone else's opinions (including mine). \n\nThe world would be a far better place if everyone were a bit more skeptical of others' opinions and were more inclined to verify what others tell them.

October 27, 2009

\n\nThanks anonymous for your well thought and wise advice. I will try to always remember it. Please, let me add something to it and feel free to counterbalance it. I think that is also important to bring into discussion strong opinions, concerns with an appearance of having an agenda and so on and so forth. Because the chances are that things and ideas can be clarified and we can move on feeling that everybody had an opportunity to express his/her own views. I only hope that Dr Beachy did not take it personally.\n\nThanks again.\n\nRafaela\n

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Advertisement
Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences