The United States Department of Agriculture, which ranks sixth among government agencies in science funding, is giving out a respectable amount of research money - $900 million - this year. Less respectable, however, is the way the department will go about doling out the bulk of that money, at least according to two major policy studies by agriculture experts.

Among the chief complaints: That the USDA does not use competitive peer reviewed proposals as a basis for the distribution of most of its sizable funding.

Despite criticism of USDA funding of research, there is almost universal praise for its small, formal Competitive Research Grants program. This effort emphasizes basic research and is administered via a vigorous peer review system. It is open to all researchers, both inside and outside the USDA.

Started in 1977 with $15 million, the program has grown modestly to $40 million, despite periodic assaults from outside....

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