November 6, 2017
Congress was in session during October and some actions were taken. The budget, hurricanes, and the investigation into Russian involvement in our elections garnered most of the attention. The Russian investigation continued and resulted in the first judicial actions that have been widely covered. They have also affected nominations. Funding for hurricane relief was approved, but relief efforts continue to be an area of concern, especially in Puerto Rico, where much of the island continues to be without power. Here are some recent developments of interest.
Subcommittee on Research and Technology Hearing
The Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing on November 2: Putting Food on the Table—A Review of the Importance of Agriculture Research. The subcommittee and all witnesses highlighted the value of and need for agricultural research funding.
In her opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) noted that the purpose of the hearing was “... to examine federal agriculture research, including the scope, importance, value, and impact of such research. Agriculture research is a broad term that can include the study of diseases that threaten the nation’s animal agriculture industry and public health. It can also refer to research to increase and improve crop and yield production through advancements in science and technology. In other words, we rely on the research to help protect the nation from disasters, and we rely on it to help prepare us for the future, one in which agriculture research will benefit from developments in precision and automated technologies such robotics and artificial intelligence.”
Hearing witnesses were:
- Dr. Daniel Gerstein, senior policy researcher, RAND Corporation [Truth in Testimony]
- Dr. Stephen Higgs, associate vice president for research and director of the Biosecurity Research Institute, Kansas State University [Truth in Testimony]
- Dr. Stephen P. Moose, Denton and Elizabeth Alexander Professor, maize breeding and genetics, Department of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign [Truth in Testimony]
- Dr. Elizabeth Wagstrom, chief veterinarian, National Pork Producers Council [Truth in Testimony]
Links to the testimony are included at each witness’s name. A video recording of the hearing and additional information are available here.
SoAR Releases Report Highlighting Ag Research
The SoAR (Supporters of Agricultural Research) Foundation has produced a series of publications under the banner of “Retaking the Field.” The first, “Retaking the Field: The Case for a Surge in Agricultural Research,” is a collaborative report from 13 partnering universities and the SoAR Foundation that provides a compelling case to policymakers and the public for increased federal agricultural research funding by celebrating a few of the advances that have been made and exploring the untapped potential of the agriculture and food sciences.
The second, “Retaking the Field: Strengthening the Science of Farm and Food Production,” is a collaborative report from 11 universities and the SoAR Foundation. It helps show ways in which scientists are solving some of the most difficult questions in food production, and it highlights research breakthroughs funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).
The third, “Retaking the Field: Empowering Agricultural Sciences for Health,” is a collaborative report from 11 universities and the SoAR Foundation. It explores the success of research projects funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). They show how scientists are solving challenging and critical public health issues related to zoonotic diseases, nutrition, and food safety ranging from controlling drug-resistant bacteria to improving gut health.
These reports indicate that China has now passed the United States in their funding for public agricultural research and development. They also raise concerns that AFRI can fund less than 25% of the project recommended through the peer-review process and that the USDA receives less than 4% of the federal non-defense R&D budget. The reports are available at http://supportagresearch.org/.
Last week the House adopted the Senate version of the budget that allowed them to move on to the tax plan that can now be adopted with a simple majority vote. The budget does allow up to $1.5 trillion to be added to the deficit over the next decade to pay for tax cuts in the GOP plan. The total package will be determined later, but it instructs Energy and Natural Resources to save at least $1 billion over the next decade, cuts $473 billion from Medicare and $1 trillion from Medicaid over the next 10 years. The tax plan was announced on November 2. It is unclear yet what the impacts will be on agriculture or agricultural research.
Important leadership spots at USDA remain open. Major news this week was that, due in large part to links to the ongoing Russia investigation, Sam Clovis has withdrawn his name from consideration to be USDA undersecretary for research, education, and economics. His nomination was already in trouble, so this was not unexpected, but the nomination process must now begin again. The confirmation of Bill Northey as undersecretary for farm production and conservation has also taken an unexpected turn. Senator Ted Cruz placed a hold on the nomination, which prevents the full Senate from taking action on it. Senator Cruz has said he will keep the hold in place until the Trump administration organizes a meeting on the Renewable Fuel Standard. It is uncertain when this may happen.
Other nominations are moving more smoothly. The Senate has confirmed Greg Ibach as undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, and the Senate Finance Committee advanced to the floor the nomination of Gregory Doud to serve as chief agricultural negotiator for the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a new rule barring scientists who receive EPA research funding from serving on the agency’s three main advisory panels: the Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), and the Board of Scientific Counselors. In a memo announcing the change, he said, “Members shall be independent from EPA, which shall include a requirement that no member of an EPA federal advisory committee be currently a recipient of EPA grants, either as principal investigator or co-investigator, or in a position that otherwise would reap substantial direct benefit from an EPA grant. This principle shall not apply to state, tribal, or local government agency recipients of EPA grants.” No similar action was taken relative to scientists funded by organizations affected by EPA regulations. The move significantly reduces the number of individuals with appropriate expertise to advise the agency and serve on the panels, which are meant to serve as a check on policies at the agency.
Meeting with Media and Partners
The FASS Science Policy coordinator attended World Dairy Expo and met with editors of national and regional dairy trade publications. All were supportive of agricultural research as it provides the basis for much of the news reported in their publications. Moving forward, they are interested in helping to encourage support for research funding. While at the expo, he also visited with Kathryn VandenBosch, dean and director of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about the Farm Bill, research funding, and possible future collaboration on these issues. The FASS Science Policy coordinator also attended a seminar titled “Consumer and Public Perceptions of the US Dairy Industry: Implications for Practices, Policy and Market Demand” presented by Christopher Wolf, professor, Michigan State University. Wolf’s work focuses on the effect of public policy on farm behavior and financial outcome, especially on issues of current and future importance to policymakers and industry decision-makers.
Later in the month, the coordinator participated in the annual meeting of the U.S. Animal Health Association (USAHA). While there, he discussed 2018 Farm Bill and FY18 budget priorities with staff from National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) as well as state and federal animal health officials. All have strong interest in assuring an adequate foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) vaccine bank as well as funding for animal health research. During the meeting, USAHA passed a resolution urging support of federal funding for an FMD vaccine bank, the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, and state programs for the prevention of foreign animal disease.