January/February, 2020

    February 25, 2020


    The president’s impeachment trial has come to an end, but controversy related to it and other issues continues. Election season is ramping up with primaries across the nation. The primaries and the pending 2020 elections will limit any actual legislative work accomplished during the year. Despite the distractions, some work is ongoing and will need to be completed. Here are highlights of a few areas related to research.

    USDA’s Science Blueprint
    Scott Hutchins, who leads USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area, first announced the publication of the USDA Science Blueprint during his remarks to the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research conference on February 5. The document is intended to provide a foundation for focused leadership and direction of USDA’s scientific mission through 2025. It includes the four REE mission area agencies—the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—along with the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) and the science arms of the US Forest Service (FS), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The document lays out five overarching themes for research, education, and economics, each with established objectives, strategies, and evidence-building measures. The five program themes are

    1. sustainable ag intensification,
    2. ag climate adaptation,
    3. food and nutrition translation,
    4. value-added innovations, and
    5. ag science policy leadership.

    You can find the USDA Science Blueprint on the USDA website.

    IFT Calls for Increase in Research Funding
    With work beginning on the FY21 federal budget, groups are beginning to identify funding needs in various areas. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) recently published a white paper titled “Food Research—Call to Action on Funding and Priorities” that makes the case for stepped-up investment in food research. They identified three priority areas for increased funding:

    • Public health: To improve the nutritional quality, palatability, and accessibility of food.
    • Food safety and quality: To protect the integrity of globalized food chains and digitize food safety and traceability to prevent, manage, and rapidly address critical issues.
    • Food security and sustainability: To increase the quantity and quality of food available, drawing on technology breakthroughs and reducing food loss and waste.

    They noted that continued underfunding will likely risk public health, food safety, and food security and erode the US talent pipeline and global competitiveness. In their call to action, they identified the need to

    • increase and prioritize USDA’s funding for agri-food research, with a primary focus on food;
    • authorize additional federal agencies to fund interdisciplinary research in food; and
    • enhance public–private partnerships for agri-food research, with a focus on research in food.

    The full white paper is available here.

    Ag Budget Status
    If it seems as though we just completed the FY20 budget, we did. The FY20 budget was passed and signed into law on December 19, 2019; however, it is now time for FY21. The administration was required to submit their proposal to Congress by February 10 and did so. In most years the administration’s proposal has no chance of becoming law, and this year is no exception. This year’s proposal largely ignored the agreement on two-year spending levels that was negotiated last year between the White House and Congress and instead proposed deep cuts in many programs that Congress had previously rejected. Although there is virtually no chance that the administration’s proposed budget will pass, it is a useful indicator of priorities and shows areas in which it will be helpful to provide Congress with more detailed information. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has provided a look at the proposed budget’s impact on various federal research agencies. Here is a rundown of some of the numbers from the budget request’s R&D chapter. (The numbers reflect the portion of each agency’s budget classified as research, which in most cases is less than its overall budget.)

    • National Institutes of Health: a cut of 7% ($2.942 billion) to $36.965 billion
    • National Science Foundation: a cut of 6% ($424 million) to $6.328 billion
    • Department of Energy’s Office of Science: a cut of 17% ($1.164 billion) to $5.760 billion
    • NASA science: a cut of 11% ($758 million) to $6.261 billion
    • Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy: a cut of 173%, which would not only eliminate the $425 million agency but also force it to return $311 million to the Department of the Treasury
    • USDA’s ARS: a cut of 12% ($190 million) to $1.435 billion
    • National Institute of Standards and Technology: a cut of 19% ($154 million) to $653 million
    • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: a cut of 31% ($300 million) to $678 million
    • Environmental Protection Agency science and technology: a cut of 37% ($174 million) to $318 million
    • Department of Homeland Security science and technology: a cut of 15% ($65 million) to $357 million
    • US Geological Survey: a cut of 30% ($200 million) to $460 million

    One of the few budgetary bright spots is that USDA’s NIFA, the source of most of the department’s competitive grants to academic research, would grow by 11% ($95 million) to $968 million. Within that institute, its competitive grants program—now at $425 million—would have $100 million earmarked for research on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Tempering this is the fact that the proposal does cut $67 million for formula funds, more than $20 million in assorted other NIFA funds, and $23 million to ERS. The proposed increase for NIFA can be a useful talking point in further budget discussions with the House and Senate. Several coalitions that FASS is part of are beginning advocacy efforts with congressional committees and with individual members of Congress relative to research priorities and budget needs.

    Looking Ahead
    The FASS Science Policy Committee will be meeting soon to continue work on updating our policy statements. We welcome suggestions of other areas that should be addressed. As noted above, the budget cycle for 2021 has begun. We will be working with coalition partners to actively advocate for agriculture research. As the elections approach, take time to learn more about the candidates in your state and their positions on science. We need more members of Congress who will support and advocate for the use of science in policy making.

    Please contact me if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions on any of these issues. 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.

    Ken Olson, PhD, PAS
    FASS Science Policy Coordinator