U.S. Should Grow Agricultural Research Spending, White House Panel Recommends

Planting seeds. New White House report calls for boosting U.S. spending on agricultural research.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

The United States should boost by $700 million its annual spending on agricultural research, shift public resources away from fields that are already getting private sector support, and award more funds through competitive grants, concludes a report released today by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

"[O]ur Nation's agricultural research enterprise is not prepared to meet the challenges that U.S. agriculture faces in the 21st century" for two main reasons, concludes the report, which was requested earlier this year by officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

One is that the government distributes too little of the roughly $4 billion it spends annually on agricultural research through competitions among scientists, "which fails to adequately encourage innovation." In part, that's because Congress typically dictates how and where agencies—primarily USDA—should spend the money. To shake things up, the report recommends that Congress nearly double USDA's annual budget for competitive funding of extramural research at universities. That growth, from $265 million to $500 million per year, would be in line with a long-term plan lawmakers approved in 2008. The report also calls for roughly doubling, to $250 million, the National Science Foundation's budget for agriculture-related basic science.

The other big problem, the report says, is the balance across the research portfolio. Too much federal money is spent on crops and technologies that already attract investment from industry, according to the report, and not enough on emerging science that is deemed too risky by private investors.

Although "industry has an essential role to play in agricultural research, … many of the challenges we face today, including long-term water security and the need for better integrated pest management strategies, involve public goods not easily monetized and are unlikely to be addressed by the private sector," Barbara Schaal, the report's co-chair and a plant geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement. The other co-chair was Daniel Schrag, an earth scientist at Harvard University. Both are members of PCAST.

According to a press release, the report calls for a "strategic re-balancing of the R&D portfolio" that would put a priority on meeting seven challenges, including managing new pests, adapting to climate change, and finding better way to produce biofuels. The panel also wants the government to partner with universities and industry to create six new multidisciplinary "innovation institutes." Each institute would receive $25 million per year for 5 years to jump-start high-priority agricultural research.

Advocates for agricultural research funding are giving the report good marks for being blunt. "The sober analysis concludes that neither the national research structure nor funding levels are adequate," Thomas Sinclair, an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said in a statement issued by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America. And it "reaches the clear conclusion that leadership must come from Congress, the USDA, and land grant universities."

Many of the report's recommendations echo advice from past reports that have failed to sway policymakers. But advocates hope that having them repeated by PCAST—a panel appointed directly by the president—won't hurt.