In Budget Drought, USDA Aims to Fertilize Competitive Grants

Lean times won't stunt the peer-reviewed research grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if Congress grants the Obama Administration's request for its FY 2012 budget. Although the overall USDA budget would decrease by 11% (to nearly $24 billion), USDA is asking for a 24% boost for external competitive research grants.

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which had a budget of $262 million in FY 2010, gives out grants in areas such as improving food safety and mitigating the impact of climate change on agriculture. In the budget request released today, AFRI would rise to $325 million in FY 2012 (highlights in pdf). "Enhancing AFRI is a priority," says Roger Beachy, director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The budget request would also move USDA's $12 million graduate fellowship program within AFRI to align it with research priorities there.

USDA would pay for the increase in competitive grants by removing earmarks and canceling some research construction projects. It would also trim its so-called formula funding, handed out to agricultural experiment stations, by 5%, to $204 million.

"We are pleased that the president has included competitive agricultural research as part of his agenda for the future of innovation," says Caron Gala Bijl, who represents the AFRI Coalition, a group of more than 30 science organizations. " Sixty-three million is a realistic increase in the current budget environment," he told ScienceInsider in an e-mail.

But before turning to FY 2012, Congress must finalize the current budget. Without mentioning AFRI in particular, House of Representatives Republicans have announced that they'd like to cut $217 million from NIFA's FY 2010 level of $788 million. That would be a lot of pruning compared with the Administration's FY 2011 request of $839 million. Bijl hopes that AFRI will remain flat-funded for the time being. But with the budget ax swinging in Congress, competitive research may very well end up withering a bit before USDA gets a chance to pour on more money.

The full text of the USDA request is here (PDF).

See our complete coverage of Budget 2012.

*UPDATE, 15 February: House Republicans would in fact cut competitive grants in their continuing budget resolution for FY2010, reducing AFRI by 13% to $227.8 million. Individual programs aren't mentioned by name, just by the FY 2010 funding level and the bill text had a typo, Bijl says.