Hoping to emulate the success and ambition of ecological research networks, such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is creating a network of long-term agricultural research sites. This week, the agency announced the selection of 10 existing facilities around the country.
Unlike the networks that inspired it, USDA's new effort has no new money involved. But advocates are nonetheless feeling inspired. "This has the potential to be transformative," says Peter Groffman of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York. "I think this is a positive step toward more integrative research," adds Laurie Drinkwater of Cornell University.
The goal of the Long Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network is to study agricultural issues—from soil erosion to climate change—in various environments and over decades, so as to capture slow change and unpredictable events that might not be seen in short-term studies. Ultimately, the research is intended to inform strategies to improve agricultural resilience.
The network will consist of existing facilities run by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The 10 in the network were chosen based on track records of long-term research (up to 100 years in one case), existing partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, and on a commitment to support standardized data-gathering for 30 to 50 years.
The selected sites are:
1. Ames, Iowa: Upper Mississippi River Basin Experimental Watersheds
2. Cheyenne: Central Plains Experimental Range
3. Columbia, Missouri: Goodwater Creek Experimental Watershed
4. El Reno, Oklahoma: Little Washita River/Fort Cobb Reservoir Experimental Waters
5. Las Cruces, New Mexico: Jornada Experimental Range
6. Pullman, Washington: R.J. Cook Agronomy Farm
7. Tifton, Georgia: Little River Experimental Watershed
8. Tucson, Arizona: Walnut Gulch Experimental Watershed
9. University Park, Pennsyvlania: Upper Chesapeake Bay Experimental Watersheds
10. Mandan, North Dakota: Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory
These sites already conduct about $44 million of research annually on natural resources. As part of the network approach, ARS wants the facilities to increase collaborations with universities and other research networks, including NEON and the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) network. The LTAR itself will likely be expanded: Mark Walbridge, a USDA ecologist and national program leader for water availability and watershed management in Beltsville, Maryland, notes that there are still some gaps in geographic coverage, such as the Ohio River basin and lower Mississippi.
Planning is still very much in progress. The LTAR has a committee that is drafting a strategic plan for research, which it hopes to complete early next year, Walbridge says.
Funding is another question. In its request to Congress for its 2013 budget, USDA asked for $9.5 million for LTAR, says Ann Bartuska, USDA's deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics. But the request was not granted by congressional spending committees. Bartuska and Walbridge are optimistic that USDA will find a way to support LTAR, as it is mentioned as a priority in the agency research plan released in February.
"Success will hinge on whether funding becomes available to underwrite a robust suite of long-term, cross-site questions," Phil Robertson of Michigan State University in East Lansing tells ScienceInsider. "I'm hopeful, especially if they leverage the experience of NSF's LTER network." Robertson recently chaired NSF's LTER network and leads the only agricultural site in that network.
Drinkwater says that she hopes linking ARS research sites into a network will boost the odds that they don't get shut down. The USDA is closing 12 research programs this year to help make ends meet.