AGree calls on Congress to prioritize ag research

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 24, 2015-AGree, an agricultural think tank with former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman as one of its co-chairs, released a report today on how to improve the  food and agricultural research system, and called on Congress to hold hearings on the topic.

The report, Research & Innovation: Strengthening Agricultural Research, includes nine recommendations to strengthen the impact of public research dollars by reforming the system and also makes the case for increased research funding.

“Important progress has been made in recent years to bolster food and ag research,” Glickman said at a briefing where the report was released. “Now we need to maximize return on the dollar, which begins with Congress holding a series of oversight hearings examining long-established federal funding models with fresh eyes,” Glickman said. He noted that Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who lead the Senate Agriculture Committee, expressed interest in holding hearings.

Lets Talk Food

Glickman told reporters the structure of agricultural and food research spending has not been seriously reviewed for decades. 

USDA research dollars are geared toward major issues like water shortages, plant and animal diseases, weather volatility, antibiotic use, diet and nutrition, and farm productivity, he said. However, funding is limited and the amount of money in agricultural research has been trending down. There is also an “extensive amount of duplicate research” happening at institutions around the country,” Glickman said.

Deborah Atwood, AGree's executive director, noted that while the need to modernize the research system has been discussed behind closed doors, “now it's time to have an open national conversation about needed changes.”

Kathleen Merrigan, AGree co-chair and a former USDA deputy secretary, added: “We're past the last farm bill; there's some oxygen available in Congress. We're asking our leaders to engage in an overdue conversation.” 

The recommendations in the paper were developed based on meetings held across the country throughout a two year period involving more than 100 people. They were further informed by five papers commissioned by AGree, the organization said. The recommendations:

--Scrutinize and modernize federal funding mechanisms for public research, education, and

extension to foster innovation and maximize public benefits.

--Review and reset publicly-funded research priorities periodically, employing a transparent process with input from multiple stakeholders and end users to ensure that funds are focused on high impact areas.

--Minimize duplicative efforts and unnecessary costs by assessing the existing research infrastructure and improving grant monitoring and tracking systems.

--Target public research funding to areas unlikely to be addressed by private industry.

--Increase Congressional oversight of the U.S. agricultural research enterprise.

--Make data, information, and findings from publicly-funded research accessible.

--Strengthen the role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Chief Scientist to help ensure the U.S. continues to serve as a global leader on food and agricultural research and innovation.

--Integrate research, education, and extension activities to promote coordination across each of these three interconnected elements at the university level.

--Maintain U.S. leadership and engagement in international food and agricultural research.

Glickman and Merrigan said that public support for research funding for the Pentagon, National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation is strong, while agriculture and food is getting left behind.

The AGree paper notes that “it would be shortsighted to advocate for increased funding without aggressively pursuing both short- and long-term changes in the U.S. research and innovation system” and that institutions “must align public food and agricultural research priorities with broadly-supported public policy objectives” and “ensure that they address issues relevant to the public good…”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition issued a statement supporting AGree's objectives, noting that research and extension “often at best plays second fiddle in federal farm policy deliberations.”

NSAC added, “Yet, the research agenda we set today in a very real way helps determine the food and agriculture system we will have a generation from now. It is critical, therefore, that as we find ways to increase public investment, we also align research and development with our values.”

The new Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), created in the 2014 farm bill, could serve to boost research support, noted Glickman, who also serves as FFAR's chair. 

Congress provided $200 million for the foundation, which must be matched by non-federal funds as projects are identified and approved. FFAR recently named Sally Rockey as its first executive director. Rockey is currently deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

The AGree paper recommends the creation of a new mechanism to improve the capacity to examine the costs and benefits of new technologies, similar to the former USDA Agricultural Science and Technology Review Board.

It also endorses increases for competitive grant funding through existing programs including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Specialty Crop Research Initiative, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension, Organic Agriculture Research, Education, and Extension Initiative, and Crop Protection and Pest Management Competitive Grants Program.

#30

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