December 6, 2017
During November, the ongoing investigation into Russian involvement in our elections and GOP efforts to pass a tax bill have garnered most of the attention. With the plea agreement on December 1 by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, it is certain that the Russian investigation will have an even higher profile in the media coverage and on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks. In spite of this, many other issues require attention in the limited number of legislative days left this year. Here are some recent developments of interest.
FASS Supports Preservation of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program
FASS joined 119 other organizations in a coalition letter to members of Congress asking that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program be preserved. The program, established in October 2007, will forgive student loans of people who work full time in public service for a minimum of 10 years. This includes veterinarians, animal scientists, dairy scientists, equine scientists, poultry scientists, marine biologists, zoologists, animal nutritionists, epidemiologists, pathologists, ecologists, veterinary technicians, and many others working full time in eligible public-sector jobs where they promote animal health and welfare, protect public health, bolster food safety and security, and advance research and education. Federal, state, local, and tribal governments; the US military; nonprofit/tax-exempt clinics; and public educational institutions are all places of employment that would qualify. Under current law, student loan amounts forgiven under PSLF are not considered income for tax purposes. A copy of the letter is available on the FASS Science Policy site.
Budget and Taxes
While the Senate GOP leadership has been working to bring a tax proposal to the floor, another urgent funding issue needs to be addressed. The Continuing Resolution (CR) that currently allows the government to run expires on Friday, December 8. Without action, most government functions would shut down at that time. Reports are that House GOP leadership will seek to pass a short-term extension that would run to December 22. They hope that this would allow time for enough discussion of spending and immigration issues that a somewhat longer CR could be agreed to that would carry into the new year.
Relative to the Senate tax proposal, it appears there have been enough changes made to bring enough GOP members onboard for it to pass. We will have to wait for Senate leadership to release the final language to see just what is included. The House passed their version earlier in November. The next step will be to find a way to bring the two plans together in a form that is acceptable to both. Obviously, this means that it is unclear yet as to what the effects will be on agriculture and agricultural research.
USDA Nominations Lag
It has been almost seven months since Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue took office, but the USDA is still working with few members of its permanent leadership team in place. Only four of more than a dozen Senate-confirmed positions, including Perdue, have been filled. Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky, Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney, and Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach are the others who are in place. There are only a few USDA nominees currently waiting for sign off, and the Senate has an extremely busy agenda over the remaining two weeks it will be in session before the holidays. Given this, it could be a few months before final votes are taken on nominations for which selections have yet to be made. Among those still waiting are the following:
- Stephen Vaden: The nominee for general counsel who has not cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee. A markup has not been scheduled.
- Bill Northey: The administration’s pick to head the newly created Farm Services and Conservation Mission area. He was expected to get a quick confirmation vote after the committee voted on October 19 to send his nomination to the Senate floor, but Sen. Ted Cruz still has a hold on the nomination.
- Gregg Doud: He is awaiting a floor vote on his nomination to be US Trade Representative (USTR) chief agricultural negotiator, but he may not get anywhere soon. Sen. Jeff Flake put a hold on his nomination over the controversial seasonal produce proposal that the USTR put forward during the NAFTA 2.0 talks.
- Michael Dourson: The pick to head the EPA's chemicals office, which oversees pesticides, has also run into trouble due to past consulting work where he pushed for legal limits far weaker than other scientists recommended for chlorpyrifos and other organophosphates.
Other positions remaining to be filled at the USDA include the following:
- Four undersecretary posts: Picks have not been announced for Natural Resources and the Environment; Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services; and Food Safety. The post of undersecretary for research, education and economics is also open. No frontrunners for that spot have been identified since Sam Clovis withdrew from consideration.
- Three assistant secretary posts: The administration also has not announced selections for the assistant secretaries for Congressional Relations, Administration, or Civil Rights, and the same is true for the CFO post.
The State of Global Nutrition
The 2017 Global Nutrition Report was presented to members of Congress on November 29, 2017. The report presents a "grave" but hopeful message: Statistics on hunger are headed in the wrong direction, but it is hoped that solving the "large-scale and universal problem" that nutrition represents will be a catalyst for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that 193 nations agreed to in 2015. The goals include an effort to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030.
"The SDGs are telling us loud and clear: We must deliver multiple goals through shared action," the report said. "Nutrition is part of that shared action. Action on nutrition is needed to achieve goals across the SDGs, and, in turn, action throughout the SDGs is needed to address the causes of malnutrition."
How bad is the problem? Eighty-eight percent of countries for which data is available face a "serious burden" from either two or three types of malnutrition, like childhood stunting or anemia in women of reproductive age. While stats on children under the age of five who are "chronically or acutely undernourished" are improving in many countries, progress has not been fast enough to meet international goals. Now 815 million go to bed hungry compared with 777 million in 2015.
What to do? The report called for governments and other entities to invest in nutrition in an integrated fashion, and for inequities to be considered in high-income nations as well as low and medium ones. "If we want to transform our world, for everyone, we must all stop acting in silos, remembering that people do not live in silos," the report said.
Conversing with Partners and Planning Ahead
The FASS Science Policy Coordinator was in regular communication with other science and industry groups to assess implications of tax proposals as well as any progress on the Farm Bill and nominations. As noted above, we did join one coalition letter and another is currently under consideration. During the month, we participated in the FASS Science Policy Committee meeting. On December 5, we will participate via conference call in the National C-FAR Research Outreach Committee (ROC) meeting, where we will discuss the following:
- 2018 Hill Seminar nominations—review and selection (first round)
- Updates—appropriations, Farm Bill, administration appointments in REE Space, etc.
- Preparation for December 11 board meeting—ROC Recommendations for 2018 Action Program
The following week, we will participate in the year-end board meeting of National C-FAR and a meeting of the Animal Ag Coalition. Both will bring coalition partners together to focus on Farm Bill and budget priorities for 2018.
For additional details contact
Ken Olson, PhD, PAS, FASS Science Policy Coordinator
As the FASS science policy coordinator noted, while many other happenings are gaining significant attention in Washington, DC, around the country, agricultural and animal science, including research and education, continues in many exciting directions. I will provide a short summary of three related areas and links to more information; these will be covered in more depth in our upcoming Winter Webinar in early 2018.
Research, Infrastructure and Capacity Building in "Data Sciences, Big Data, Complex Research, Integrated Sciences"
The food and agricultural problems of the United States and ensuring food security require coordination of the research, teaching, and training of future researchers and teachers. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) continues to fund and support increased efforts in what has generally become known as “Big Data” or, more scientifically, “data sciences.” Data science(s) is a specific academic field with universities offering advanced degrees. Per Wikipedia, “Data science, also known as data-driven science, is an interdisciplinary field about scientific methods, processes, and systems to extract knowledge or insights from data in various forms, either structured or unstructured, similar to data mining.”
More specifically to agriculture, data science includes the recognition that we have and will continue to have (1) access to a century of data on all aspects of agricultural production from basic biology of corn or dairy cows; soils; weather; chemistry; physiology; nutrition; genetics; management; food chemistry and safety; human nutrition and health; and consumer purchasing—data that have already supplied knowledge to improve food security, but that also contain completely unknown information, which very well may be of great use; and (2) scientific problems, from basic cell biology to worldwide applications of plant or animal genetics to human food security, that now demand complex experimental approaches, whether in the laboratory, in silico, on farm, or in the store or household.
NIFA is funding directed workshops and research in this area, with one recent example being the USDA Livestock High-Throughput Phenotyping and Big Data Analytics conference at the National Agriculture Library (Beltsville, MD; November 13 and 14). The meeting was organized through an NIFA meeting grant with a focus on phenotyping beef cattle, but the workshop used a variety of applications of technology. The conference focused on identifying and describing various types of technology to support research and application in the biology and on-farm production of food. Many examples were from cropping systems or other aspects of the food system. The conference presented a number of approaches to measure phenotypes using a wide variety of chemical and electrical processes, including soil chemistry, plant and tissue chemistry, water measurements, temperature measurements, and final practical outcomes. The conference description and links to most of the presentation videos can be found here.
One more example of using an integrated, complex, data-driven approach to solving problems can be found in the recent article Nutritional and Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Removing Animals from US Agriculture (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1707322114).
In a careful and thorough analysis, Drs. Mary Beth Hall and Robin White demonstrate that if all of US animal production “went away”—for example, on the advice of those who think that animal agriculture is a major contributor to global warming—the amount of greenhouse gases would in fact increase. This is an extremely important example of using available data in a complex way to answer specific questions of international importance.
More detail on the NIFA Programs and Approaches can be found at these links and go to specific study areas for granting opportunities: https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/07/17/big-data-yields-big-opportunities-agriculture and https://nifa.usda.gov/search?keyword=data%20science&sort_by=search_api_relevance.
The ADSA Foundation and the Journal of Dairy Science® Published a Special Issue on 100 Years of Dairy Science Research
The first issue of the Journal of Dairy Science (JDS) was published in 1917. Since that first issue, the journal has published almost 30,000 articles and 200,000 pages. In the process, the work published in the journal has made a broad contribution to scientific knowledge and to the production of a safe and affordable food supply. To reflect on that century of research, the December issue of the journal’s 100th volume contained the ADSA Foundation Collection of 100-Year Reviews, a special 100th anniversary retrospective containing 30 focused reviews of progress in areas of research that are featured in JDS. The timelines in each review place major discoveries and events into historical context.
The authors published in the first issue could recognize many current topics of research, but their work also laid the foundation for new fields of research they could not have foreseen. Topics unknown even 50 years ago are now standard areas for research and application. “As in all scientific fields, dairy science demonstrates the continuous loop between the initial question, the testing of the hypothesis (research), the defense and publication of the results, and the creation of new questions based on the original research. This constant cycle of scientific discovery fueled by the inborn curiosity of the human condition has led to a century of dairy science research and vast improvement in the production and processing of milk,” JDS editor-in-chief Matt Lucy said.
“Students and researchers of the present need a solid foundation of current knowledge so that we do not repeat the past instead of creating the future. We hope that the articles themselves and the timelines become valuable resources for this purpose,” said John McNamara, guest editor for the special issue. A standalone reprint of the ADSA Foundation Collection of 100-Year Reviews is available from Elsevier for $35.00 plus the cost of shipping.