UPDATED: A Boost for Competitive Grants at USDA and EPA

Competitive grants are catching on at two agencies—the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency—that haven't been big investors in such awards in the past.

At USDA, the competitive grants program would get a $167 million boost, rising by 64% to $429 million. "It's a remarkable confirmation of the importance that the president and the secretary place on competitive research," says Roger Beachy, who heads the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the home for extramural funding at USDA. By contrast USDA's grants given via so-called formula funding to universities would remain flat, as would the NIFA overall budget of $1.5 billion. The Agricultural Research Service, which performs intramural research at USDA, would decline $51 million, to $1.2 billion.

[UPDATE: Here's a sharper focus on ARS, courtesy of USDA's Rick Borchelt. He notes that the research portion of the ARS 2011 budget request is $20 million higher than in FY 2010. The agency is requesting $61.5 million to create or expand research initiatives, while eliminating $75 million of unspent funds for facilities.]

Advocates of agricultural research are focusing on the big win of the day for competitive research. "It's pretty incredible number," says Karl Glasener, who is based in Washington, D.C., directs science policy for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America. He attributes the jump to the efforts of Rajiv Shah, who oversaw USDA research until he was sworn in as head of the U.S. Agency for International Development last month. Glasener is also encouraged that the president's science adviser, John Holdren, mentioned NIFA in a White House briefing. "We've never had energy like this in the agricultural sciences," Glasener says. "I don't recall a science adviser ever mentioning agriculture in a budget briefing."

USDA wants to pay for the increase by cutting out congressional earmarks—rarely a successful approach on Capitol Hill. Beachy says he plans to include many of those research areas in request for proposals; there will be fewer, but larger, grants than in the past. "We hope there's some understanding in Congress that the best way to move the country and regions forward is through these larger grants that we're awarding," Beachy says. "We think we'll get more bang for the buck."

Meanwhile EPA is proposing a 40% increase for its competitive grants program. The Science To Achieve Results (STAR) program would get $87.2 million in 2011, a $25.2 million boost from this year's budget. One component of the program, STAR grants to graduate students, would rise by $6.2 million to a proposed level of $17.3 million, which would fund an additional 240 fellowships.

That represents a big increase, considering the overall science and technology budget is essentially flat, at a request of $846.7 million. Within EPA in-house research, however, computational toxicology would receive an increase of $1.9 million, growing the program to $21.9 million with a focus on accelerating the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program. EPA appears to be paying for these increases mainly by stripping out congressional earmarks and reducing its homeland security program.

[UPDATE: Taking a finer look at EPA reveals a slightly different picture. While the broad science and technology account is flat, the research slice of that pie would grow 4.9%, to $553 million, according to figures (pdf) from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.]