September 14, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes, Midwest storms, western wildfires, civic unrest, and elections are all getting news coverage and the attention of members of Congress. November 3 is Election Day but very few legislative days remain before the election. The House is expected to pass several bills on a variety of issues, but the Senate is unlikely to consider them. Here are a few highlights.
COVID-19 Relief Round 4
COVID-19 is having major effects across the country but action is currently stalled, with both sides still far apart in funding and what should be included in a relief bill. About two months ago, the House passed a bill that would provide over $3 trillion in relief. The administration is looking for a package around $1 trillion, but no formal action has been taken. There are reports of talks between the House and the White House but legislative action is uncertain. In the meantime, President Trump has issued several executive orders that might address some of the issues. If legislation is passed, there may be some funding for higher education but it will likely focus on students and is unlikely to cover research project losses.
Congress will be forced to take some action on the FY21 budget by September 30 or we face a government shutdown. Most agree that the most likely outcome is passing of a continuing resolution (CR) that would provide funding until early November. Election results could make a difference but it is likely that another CR will provide funding into early 2021, when a new Congress is in place.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans recently held their conventions to formally nominate their candidates for president and vice president. Party platforms are not binding but they do provide an indication of a party’s priorities. In an unprecedented move, the GOP announced that they would have no new 2020 platform but rather that the party would “enthusiastically support” the Trump agenda. On the other side, the Democrats adopted a 91-page platform. It has minimal agriculture coverage but three items are somewhat related:
- Recommit to an open internet and net neutrality.
- Recognize the importance of data security.
- Work to make sure biotechnology remains a force for global good. Responsibly and ethically manage work in areas like gene editing.
Beyond the Beltway
US Dairy Forage Research Center
The US Dairy Forage Research Center (USDFRC) Stakeholder Committee met recently with the center’s director, Dr. Dennis Hancock. He provided an overview of the impact of COVID-19 on research at the center and on other items from the center. Research is being done to the extent possible but is limited by COVID-19 guidelines. Currently, only 35.2% of projects have been fully met, 29.6% are substantially met, and 35.2% are not able to be met. Staffing has also been affected—the vacancy rate is currently 32%. Several positions have been announced and hiring is in process, which should address the staffing shortfall. In other good news for the center, an architectural/engineering firm has been selected for the new dairy facility at the USDFRC. Plans are to be finalized and bids accepted next summer, and occupancy is expected in October 2023. Possible research areas include digester use for the facility and related issues, nutrient discharge issues, and cover crop establishment and use. One item of special interest was that congressional staff encouraged contact by stakeholders to support the center and communicate research needs. The crop side has been active in this area and we will pursue this.
Stefanou to lead the Economic Research Service
Agriculture economist Dr. Spiro Stefanou has been selected to serve as the new administrator of USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). For the past five years, Stefanou has taught economics at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture. Before that, he served 30 years as a professor of agricultural economics at Penn State University. He currently holds a part-time appointment as professor in the Business Economics Group at Wageningen University (the Netherlands) and serves as the managing editor of Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy; he was previously an editor of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.
In a statement, Scott Hutchins, USDA's deputy undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics, said Stefanou will help ERS “thrive as a world-class powerhouse and will continue to build and deliver scientifically sound economic data and research to help shape US agricultural policy and to better serve our customers and stakeholders across the nation.”
A USDA release described Stefanou as an expert in production analysis; innovation, growth, and performance; agricultural and food industries; and the dynamics of economic adjustment.
ERS was one of two agencies relocated to the Kansas City area last year. The agency, along with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will move into a downtown office there later this year. However, Stefanou will work in Washington, DC, with ERS staffers who remained behind after the move. (Source: Agri-Pulse 8/31/20)
US Establishes Seven Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes
The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced the formation of seven national artificial intelligence institutes aimed at advancing technological innovation and bolstering the economy. They noted that artificial intelligence research by the National Science Foundation will expand to a broader range of businesses across the US economy through five new NSF AI institutes that are being created at a cost of $100 million. The initiatives, which were unveiled on August 26 by the agency, will deepen the NSF's artificial intelligence research to expand the nation’s workforce and drive new possibilities for a wide range of businesses, educational institutions, medicine, banking, and other organizations.
In a related announcement, two complementary artificial intelligence research institutes are being created by the US Department of Agriculture over the next five years. using $40 million in funding to expand artificial intelligence research in farming and food processing:
- USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems, led by a team at the University of California, Davis, integrates a holistic view of the food system with artificial intelligence and bioinformatics to understand biological data and processes, addressing issues of molecular breeding to optimize traits for yield, crop quality, and pest/disease resistance; agricultural production; food processing and distribution; and nutrition. Major emphasis is on inclusive education and outreach approaches to build a diverse next-generation workforce.
- USDA-NIFA AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management and Sustainability, sponsored by USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture and led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will advance artificial intelligence research in computer vision, machine learning, soft object manipulation, and intuitive human-robot interaction to solve major agricultural challenges including labor shortages, efficiency and welfare in animal agriculture, environmental resilience of crops, and the need to safeguard soil health. The institute features a new joint computer science + agriculture degree and global clearinghouse to foster collaboration in artificial intelligence–driven agriculture research.
The FASS Science Policy Committee (SPC) meets regularly via conference call. We continue to work on updating our science policy statements, identifying and developing new statements, and planning our science policy seminar for next summer’s American Dairy Science Association annual meeting. Please contact me if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions on any of these issues for the SPC. We will provide additional information as it becomes available. We need to work together to maintain a strong and effective national research effort. If you are interested in communicating occasionally with members of Congress on issues related to animal agriculture, we are looking for FASS science policy advocates. Please contact me for details. With the fall elections fast approaching, it is important to get to know the candidates who are seeking to represent you in Congress and the state legislature. Although safety restrictions due to COVID-19 will limit in-person meetings, you can still learn about candidates’ positions on research and research funding. Please ensure that you are registered to vote and that you do vote, whether by mail, by early in-person voting, or on Election Day (November 3, 2020). We need more advocates for science in our state and federal government. It is also important to remind our members of Congress that they are representing scientists who need their support to do the research needed for the future and that we are available to provide expertise on technical matters when they need it.
Ken Olson, PhD, PAS
FASS Science Policy Coordinator