Roger Beachy, the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is leaving his post next month after serving less than 2 years. "What a huge loss," says Karl Glasener, director of science policy for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America. The decision was announced in a USDA memo (see below) this morning.
A pioneer in the genetic engineering of plants at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL and the former director of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Beachy was recruited to add momentum  to changes at USDA that were designed to increase the profile and success of agricultural research. The 2007 Farm Bill had created NIFA , and Congress subsequently boosted the institute's budget for competitive grants by 30% in FY 2010, to $260 million. He took over in September 2009; a few months later, however, his boss, Rajiv Shah, left to become head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Beachy put roughly half of the competitive funds into larger, multidisciplinary grants focused on "grand challenges," such as dealing with the impact of climate change. Not only did the number of grant applications rise significantly, but the approach tapped into a much larger pool of researchers beyond the department's traditional constituency of agriculturally focused land-grant universities. "I feel pretty good that we've been able to do as much as we have," he told ScienceInsider.
The budget picture has darkened since then. This year's pot for competitive grants is down about 1%, a far cry from the 64% increase that the Obama Administration had requested for FY 2011. And reflecting larger fiscal realities, the department's request for FY 2012, submitted in February and still pending before Congress, was scaled back  substantially, although still a robust 25% increase.
Beachy says his decision to leave on 20 May has nothing to do with the budget, but rather represents a desire to be with his family, which has remained in St. Louis. "It's strictly for personal reasons," he says. He will return to WUSTL as a professor  in the biology department and hopes to continue to advocate for agricultural research.
"He gave us a face for agricultural science that I've never seen before—modern [and someone] talking about change," says Glasener. "It was really refreshing."
Sent: Friday, April 29, 2011 11:23 AM
Subject: Message from REE Under Secretary Woteki
United States Research Office Room 216W
Department of Education of the Under Jamie L. Whitten Building
Agriculture Economics Secretary Washington, DC 20250-0110
To NIFA staff:
Dr. Roger Beachy has been an outstanding advocate for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and its research mission, so it is with regret that Secretary Vilsack and I have accepted his resignation as Director, effective May 20, 2011. We understand that Dr. Beachy's first priority must be to the needs of his family, and he will be returning to St. Louis, Missouri, to spend more time with his wife, his children and his grandchildren.
Dr. Beachy worked with many of you when he took the helm of USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) in October 2009 and led the reorganization which transformed the agency into NIFA in 2010. That monumental effort from staff and Dr. Beachy forged NIFA's reputation as a leader in promoting research and education into some of the most important issues facing the nation today. His leadership contributed to increasing the visibility of science and innovation at USDA so that American agriculture can continue to be the economic engine our nation needs, and help our country keep providing a safe and healthy food supply to the world. NIFA grants have recently been given to support such urgent national priorities as helping find solutions to the crisis of childhood obesity and developing the advanced biofuels that the United States will need for a clean energy future.
Dr. Beachy has held those who receive NIFA-funded research grants to the highest standards, which has led to cutting edge research being done throughout the Land-Grant university system and other partner organizations. The agency's support of cooperative extension and the 4-H program has changed lives, and helped train the next generation of agricultural scientists and researchers. Dr. Beachy leaves a legacy that will endure for years to come.
All of us who have worked with Dr. Beachy will miss his leadership, his enthusiasm and his expertise, and I know he will miss working with all of you. Please join me in wishing him well on this next step in his personal and professional life.
Secretary Vilsack and I both appreciate the dedication of the NIFA staff who will keep up the good work Dr. Beachy has set in motion. We are initiating an aggressive search to identify and bring on board a distinguished scientist as NIFA's next director. We will keep you apprised as that process moves forward.
In the interim period I am naming Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young as Acting Director of NIFA.
Thank you for all you do every day for NIFA, the Department and our country.
Dr. Cathie Woteki
Catherine E. Woteki, Ph.D.
Chief Scientist, USDA