New agricultural research institute planned

US Senators seek $1 billion to fund peer-reviewed food and agricultural basic research

Mar 19, 2007
Ted Agres
US lawmakers plan to introduce legislation within the next few weeks to establish a new research institute to manage peer-reviewed grants focused on basic food and agricultural science. Modeled after the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would be an independent agency within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), overseeing up to $1 billion in competitive extramural research grants. "Agricultural research has been under-funded for many years," said William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and chair of a USDA task force that recommended the institute's creation. "The opportunities and challenges are very great -- from biofuels, molecular biology, proteomics, to dealing with competition from foreign farmers with cheaper land," he told The Scientist. While Congress doubled NIH's budget to more than $27.2 billion over a five-year period, research funding at USDA has remained virtually flat over the past two decades after accounting for inflation. In Fiscal Year 2007, USDA extramural research support to colleges and universities sits at around $540 million. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Missouri), who serves on the agriculture subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, plan to reintroduce the National Institute of Food and Agriculture Act (NIFA) within the next few weeks, Harkin spokesperson Kate Cyrul told The Scientist. As currently envisioned, NIFA would be an independent agency within USDA funded at around $200 million in its first year (0.2 percent of the USDA budget), and growing to $1 billion after five years. These funds would supplement other USDA research. NIFA's director would be a scientist appointed by the president and confirmed by Senate. NIFA is only one of three competing proposals to restructure USDA sponsored research. The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC), whose members are the primary recipients of USDA extramural grants, is pushing a more ambitious proposal. That plan, called CREATE-21 ("Creating Research, Extension, and Teaching Excellence for the 21st Century"), would establish NIFA but consolidate all USDA intramural and extramural research within it. Peer-reviewed extramural research grants would total $2.1 billion annually after seven years, while $2.9 billion would go to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), other USDA intramural research units, and external funding to land-grant and related academic institutions. The USDA itself is proposing to merge intramural (ARS) and extramural research entities into a single new agency, also headed by a scientist. This new agency would receive an additional $160 million annually for specialty crop and bio-energy research, Gale Buchanan, USDA undersecretary told the Senate panel. Both Harkin and Danforth prefer to keep NIFA separate and independent. "We feel it needs to be isolated administratively and given some protection" to shield it from the vagaries of the budget and Federal bureaucracy, Danforth said. "Sen. Harkin has concerns with CREATE-21 and the USDA proposal to combine [intramural and extramural research] into one agency," Cyrul said in an Email. "These are two agencies with two distinct functions."The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) supported NIFA when it was introduced in the last session of Congress, but now is undecided. "We still are very much in favor of increasing the competitive research portfolio at USDA," said Carrie Wolinetz, FASEB's communications director. "But in light of these new proposals, we're taking a step back and looking at all three proposals to decide what's best and what's realistic," she told The Scientist. Ted Agres Links within this articleA. McCook, "The banned pesticide in our soil," The Scientist, January 1, 2006."National Institute for Food and Agriculture: A Proposal," Report of the Research, Education, and Economics Task Force, USDA, July 2004. National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges CREATE-21 E. Russo, "A USDA basic science institute?" The Scientist, November 16, 2004. press release National Institute for Food and Agriculture Act of 2006 McCook, "Unseating methyl bromide," The Scientist, January 1, 2006.