Change doesn’t always come quickly at an institution as big and venerable as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But advocates for agricultural research were pleased this week when the White House budget request included $75 million for three new research institutes. The announcement comes in the first budget request possible after a report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended the idea as part of an approach to stimulating more innovation in agricultural research.
“This is a very exciting moment for us in agricultural research,” says Molly Jahn of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an author of the PCAST report. “We’ve been heard.”
The plans for the institutes, which are not yet fully sketched out, were inspired by research hubs undertaken by the Department of Energy (DOE) and public-private partnerships, such as energy company BP’s investment at the University of California, Berkeley. If approved by Congress, each institute would receive $25 million a year (ideally for 5 years) that would be used to stimulate research relevant to companies and the public.
PCAST argued that there are key challenges and opportunities in agriculture that don’t offer immediate financial incentives for companies to invest in research, but for which science is likely to help create solutions. Creating collaborations between industry scientists, government researchers, and academics can stimulate these new ideas and products, the committee concluded. PCAST recommended USDA fund six institutes and tap expertise at other agencies, including the National Science Foundation, DOE, and the National Institutes of Health, the committee said.
In a fact sheet about the institutes, USDA notes that the participants should be chosen on a competitive basis, and the institutes should build on university, company, and USDA infrastructure. “Funds should go to research, not to bricks and mortar,” the department writes. USDA is asking for funding for institutes that would work on biomanufacturing and bioproducts development, pollination and pollinator health, and antimicrobial resistance research to fill emerging information gaps.
There are many details to work out. PCAST mentioned a few: “Such a structure needs to be built and will likely require a clear definition of research responsibility for each aspect of the research, from conception to handling of data and publication. An open environment of investigation and publication is usually most beneficial, although the need to protect proprietary aspects of research must be considered for businesses to participate fully.”
The institutes appear to be a priority for administration officials. They were mentioned in Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s public remarks about the budget, and they were included in the agency’s core budget request, not a separate $56 billion fund—known as the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative—that Congress is unlikely to fully fund. USDA may be covering the cost by trimming its intramural research arm, which would decline under the budget request by 2.1% to $1.2 billion. In line with recent administration efforts to boost competitive extramural funding, however, the proposed budget for 2015 would increase the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative by 2.8% to $325 million.