G. Philip Robertson, Ph.D.
Member, Committee on An Evaluation of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture National Research
Initiative Competitive Grants Program
National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences
Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and
W.K. Kellogg Biological Station
Michigan State University
Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee
United States Senate
March 27, 2001
Good morning, Senator Lugar and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I am Phil Robertson, Professor of Crop and Soil Sciences at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University. I served as a member of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee to Evaluate the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (known as the NRI program). I am here this morning to summarize the findings and recommendations of the NRC committee’s report, National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Natural-Resources Research (2000).
Introduction to the National Research Council
Let me briefly describe how the NRC works, because it is important for an understanding of the value of the committee’s recommendations. The NRC is the operating arm of the National Academies, which is composed of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The National Academy of Sciences is a private, non-profit society that was chartered by Congress in 1863 to advise the government on matters of science and technology. Advice is provided through the National Research Council, using thousands of experts from academe, industry, and other organizations who volunteer their time. During any given year more than 6,000 scientists, engineers, and health professionals participate in NRC activities, most of them at the request of the federal government. The NRC actively strives for a balance of views among its committee members and subjects them to a conflict of interest review.
The NRC product is typically an independent consensus report. From initial approval of a study to this final report, every project is subject to oversight by boards and divisions within the NRC whose members are, again, volunteer experts--often members of the Academies. The final step in the rigorous quality-control process is a review by outside experts who are anonymous to the study committee at the time of review but whose names are published in the final report. The sponsoring federal agency has no role in the process and does not see the report until it is ready for public release. The study that I will address today was requested by and supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service.
The Importance of Agricultural Research
It is hardly necessary to describe to this committee the importance of scientific research for providing the American public a food and fiber supply that is safe, affordable, and environmentally responsible. The fundamental success of our efforts to produce food and fiber at a rate sufficient to meet the needs of a burgeoning national and global marketplace cannot be reasonably questioned.
Nor can the starring role of research in this success be underestimated. Agriculture is more than ever a knowledge-driven industry: advances in genetics, in field crop technology, in animal health, in food storage and processing, in pest protection and forest health – advances at all stages of the production chain are driven largely by research findings.
The USDA National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (NRICGP)
The USDA spends about $1.7 billion per year on research, of which about $0.1 billion is spent on merit-based peer-reviewed research funded by the NRI Program. The NRI is the nation’s primary merit-based, peer-reviewed research response to challenges to its system of food, fiber, and natural resources. The potential for disease transfer between animals and humans; the use of crops as substitute sources of petroleum-based products; the advent of nutraceuticals; the environmental impacts of farming, food-processing, and forestry; and the improvement of the vitamin and mineral content of widely grown grains are just a few examples of important emerging research issues directly relevant to USDA’s mission. Merit-based peer-reviewed research on such issues could have profoundly beneficial effects in the United States and the rest of the world.
The NRI was launched in 1991 in response to an NRC report calling for an expanded competitive grants program to address emerging basic research needs in agriculture. The 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act authorized annual spending of up to $500 million on a new competitive-grants program. Annual funding has remained at or near $100 million since 1992. Since its inception, the NRI has functioned as a pilot program to support high-quality research related to the nation’s food, fiber, and natural resources system.
The NRC Committee to Evaluate the USDA NRICGP
In 1998, at USDA’s request, the NRC appointed a 14-member committee to perform a retrospective assessment of the quality and value of research funded by the program, to determine if the science and technology priorities within the major NRI programs are defined appropriately, to assess how NRI activities complement other research programs, and to recommend the nature and content of changes for the future.
To carry out this charge the committee gathered qualitative and quantitative data on the performance of the NRI. The committee conducted a series of surveys and interviews and solicited testimony from expert and stakeholder groups. Deans and directors of land grant and non-land grant universities, former chief scientists, and successful and unsuccessful applicants to the program were surveyed to assess the functioning of the NRI. The committee also received testimony from interested stakeholder groups, many represented at this hearing, including industry, professional societies, farm organizations, universities and agricultural experiment stations, and other federal agencies. Throughout this process the committee found a great deal of consistency in its findings.
Findings and Recommendations of the Study Committee
In general, the committee found the NRI to have financed high-quality scientific work within congressional guidelines. In this sense, the Program was judged to be a substantial success in having met its congressional mandate.
The committee also found, however, that the program is in danger of languishing. Program size, the size and duration of individual grants, and a low overhead allowance have led to reduced application numbers, especially from scientists outside the traditional food complex. Moreover, the committee found that traditional stakeholders in the NRI are losing confidence in the health and direction of the program.
Uneven and at times opaque internal procedures, funding allocation processes, and priority-setting patterns have reduced the desirability of the program in the eyes of potential applicants. Perhaps more importantly, expectations of increased funding for the NRI generated by the 1990 congressional authorization have not been met, and this has generated frustration in the food, fiber, and natural-resource research community and has had an adverse effect on the acceptance of the NRI as a strong research program.
The committee made sixteen specific recommendations to bolster and revitalize the NRI. Many of the recommendations are structural and relatively easy to address given administrative will. I would like here to emphasize three of the most difficult but important recommendations made by the committee:
The committee recommends that the NRI and other competitive USDA research programs be moved to a new Extramural Competitive Research Service (ECRS) that would report to the Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics
This would place the NRI and other competitive programs at a level equivalent to USDA’s two main research agencies (ARS and ERS). The committee believes strongly that unless extramural competitive research is given the same organizational stature as formula-funded and intramural research in USDA, it will remain difficult for the program to achieve its mission.
The committee recommends the establishment of a new Extramural Advisory Board (12-14 members) that represents NRI stakeholders and has a non-USDA chair.
In the committee’s opinion, an external Advisory Board is critical to the successful functioning of the NRI. Stakeholder contact, the advocacy of extramural research inside and outside USDA, measurement of research outcomes, and continuing evaluation of NRI operations (including the peer-reviewed project-selection system) would ensure thoroughness, objectivity, and transparency.
The committee recommends that by 2005 the NRI budget be increased to a level equivalent (adjusted for inflation) to the $550 million recommended by the NRC in 1989—but only if recommended changes in priority setting, documentation, and organization are put into place.
The committee believes that inadequate funding of the NRI has significantly limited its potential and placed the program at risk. A substantial increase in funding will ensure a robust and high quality public research effort that can significantly transform the nation’s food, fiber, and natural resources system in response to critical needs in agricultural productivity, environmental health, and societal well-being. The committee believes that after reaching this budget level, the future growth of the NRI budget should be evaluated and compared with the growth in the budgets of complementary research programs in NSF, NIH, and DOE.
Allow me to conclude with the committee’s reiteration of the extraordinary importance of public, merit-based peer-reviewed research in food, fiber, and natural resources. In the opinion of the committee, which included scientists and nonscientists from both industry and the public sector, past public research and current private activities cannot meet the needs that are being created by population growth, climate change, and natural-resource deterioration, or the challenges related to food safety and nutrition and to the growing convergence of foods and medical research. To meet these needs requires a vibrant, reinvigorated NRI that provides consistent funding for the investigator-initiated, curiosity-driven research that is the backbone of the U.S. basic-research enterprise.
Thank you again for the opportunity to speak this morning. I will be glad to answer any questions.