Agricultural Science Gets More Money, New Faces

9 OCTOBER 2009, Science Magazine,

After decades of flat funding, agricultural

research seems to have caught the attention of

U.S. policymakers. Last week, Congress gave

a 30% boost to the main competitive grants

program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

(USDA), raising it to $262 million for

2010. Two new research chiefs at the department

also hope to parlay an administrative

reorganization into greater visibility for the

field. Research advocates are cautiously

upbeat that their labors are finally paying off.

“There’s fresh energy and optimism,” says

Thomas Van Arsdall of the National Coalition

for Food and Agricultural Research in Fredericksburg,


Many are expecting a

lot from Rajiv Shah, the

young and energetic

deputy undersecretary for

research who joined

USDA in June from the

Gates Foundation. Speaking


week, Shah described his

plans to shake up the massive

department, which

employs 2300 scientists

and has a research budget

of $2.8 billion. Lobbyists

are also thrilled with this

week’s arrival of plant scientist

Roger Beachy as

head of the National Institute

of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the new

home for USDA’s extramural funding.

“Shah’s a really smart guy. He’s surrounding

himself with smart people; he’s got a big

agenda and wants to do really big things,” says

Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture

Coalition in Washington, D.C. “He’s

got the personality and credibility to try to put

that all together.”

Advocates have been trying for years to

raise the profile—and funding—of agricultural

research. They applauded last year’s passage

of an agriculture bill that will provide

$426 million over 4 years in new competitive

research funding for bioenergy, organic farming,

and vegetables and other so-called specialty

crops (

The bill also gives Shah the title of chief scientist

as part of a broader move to improve how

USDA manages research.

Shah, 36, was an unusual pick for the position.

Not only is he far younger than previous

undersecretaries, he’s not a scientist. Trained as

a physician and also holding a business degree,

Shah worked on child immunization at the

Gates Foundation before switching to agricultural

development. Now he’s applying those

skills to a department whose research budget

has remained essentially flat for decades.

USDA is also seen by many as a bit player

among federal science agencies, a status that

was reinforced earlier this year when USDA

received no research funds from the $787 billion

American Recovery and Reinvestment

Act while the National Institutes of Health

(NIH), the National Science Foundation

(NSF), and the Department of Energy’s science

programs each received billions. “I think

that was the ultimate wake-up call,” Shah says.

Shah plans to raise the department’s visibility

by focusing research on five broad

areas that align with Administration priorities:

climate change, bioenergy, food safety,

obesity, and overseas hunger. He wants to

focus on core problems—such as the development

of drought-tolerant crops and perennial

grasses for biofuels—and leverage

USDA’s investments by partnering with other

agencies. “Frankly, we’ve done too many discrete

projects that are too small in scope.”

Similarly, Shah hopes to give out fewer but

larger grants for work that fosters multidisciplinary

collaborations. He plans to hold program

managers accountable by asking them

to set goals for two, five, and 10 years.

Extramural research is also being reorganized.

In the farm bill, Congress directed USDA

to convert its Cooperative State Research,

Education, and Extension Service—which

distributes extramural grants to individual scientists

and so-called formula funding to landgrant

universities—into NIFA and to appoint a

distinguished scientist to head it.

Beachy, 65, qualifies by any measure. A

member of the National Academy of Sciences,

Beachy did important work on engineering

virus resistance in plants and in 1998

became the founding president of the Donald

Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis,

Missouri. “My major goal is to improve the

perception of the agency and gain the same

level of respect as NSF and NIH,” Beachy

says. Karl Glasener, who directs science policy

for the American Society of Agronomy,

Crop Science Society of

America, and Soil Science

Society of America

in Madison, says

“Beachy’s status as a

star in the science community

should help with

image building.”

One crucial measure

of success, of course,

will be the size of NIFA’s

budget. William Lesher,

the director of Global

Harvest Initiative in

Washington, D.C., an

agribusiness campaign

to increase research on

crop productivity, is

optimistic that congressional

appropriators will be receptive to

requests from the Obama Administration to

spend more. “If they propose larger budgets,

it will really have a signif icant positive

impact,” Lesher says.

A coalition of research advocates, including

Glasener and Hoefner, has been lobbying

for a $300 million budget for competitive

grants at USDA in fiscal year 2011. (The program

is authorized at $700 million but

received only $201 million in the 2009 fiscal

year that ended last week.) Shah won’t comment

specifically on what the agency will

request, a figure that is vetted by the White

House before it’s released in February as part

of the president’s overall budget submission to

Congress. But he emphasizes that the Administration

is serious about doing what it takes.

“In order to get the breakthroughs we want, we

have to invest at a certain level of scale and

partner with others to do it well,” he says.

“That’s what is coming.”

Science lastScience, 23 May 2008, p. 998).