Wheat in Oklahoma.

Wheat in Oklahoma.

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New agricultural science group hopes to make U.S. funding soar

Supporters of U.S. biomedical research have long practiced the art of building coalitions and lobbying Congress to win funding in annual budget brawls. Now, proponents of farm science are gearing up to try to replicate some of that success and boost government funding for competitive agricultural research.

Earlier this year, backed by a $1 million pledge from an affluent supporter, a coalition of 15 university, research, and industry groups founded Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR), a Washington, D.C.–based, nonpartisan education group with a separate lobbying arm. And they hired a veteran Washington operative, Tom Grumbly, to run it.

SoAR’s lofty goal is to double federal funding for competitive grants to investigators and to persuade more of the best research brains to work on agricultural problems. In particular, the group is pushing Congress to more than double funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to $700 million by 2018. AFRI, which is USDA’s main competitive grants program, has a $325 million budget this year, and the White House has requested a $120 million increase to $445 million.

“SoAR will make sure that AFRI is at the forefront of the policymakers’ minds when they prioritize what to spend money on,” says Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president for congressional and governmental affairs for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C., a SoAR founding member.

“Agricultural research is not in good shape” at the moment, says Grumbly, a former government affairs official for defense giant Lockheed Martin, who also worked on agricultural issues early in his career. Federal funding for farm science has stagnated or declined in recent years, he notes, and crop productivity in the United States has flatlined just as it needs to grow to meet the food demands of a growing world population. “It's a battle agricultural science can't afford to lose,” he says, adding that a budget boost would signify a “recognition that agricultural science matters and that we should keep going.”

To help persuade lawmakers to open the pocketbook, SoAR points to a 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a 2014 study from the National Research Council  of the National Academies, both of which highlighted the need to boost funding for agricultural science. The reports also backed the idea that the government should encourage better-quality science by spending more on competitive grants to researchers in academia and government laboratories.

The 2008 U.S. Farm Bill created AFRI to promote just those kinds of grants. Previously, USDA handed out the lion's share of agricultural science funding to 76 state land-grant universities, following often complex formulae. That system bred complaints that it often resulted in mediocre research. In contrast, researchers must compete for AFRI funds, and Grumbly has spent much of the early part of his tenure talking to universities about the importance of the program, partly in hopes of encouraging more of the best researchers to apply.

SoAR was established with $1 million in startup funds from William Danforth, a former chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri, and a grandson of the founder of the Ralston Purina Company. SoAR’s 15 member organizations include industry groups such as the American Soybean Association, but SoAR isn’t taking corporate funding, Grumbly says. Instead, it hopes to attract donations from individuals and large foundations.

SoAR—which has a staff of just three—has a tough job ahead, Grumbly predicts. It has contracted with a lobbying firm, The Russell Group of Washington, D.C., to provide some extra help in pushing its message in Congress. Grumbly, however, is not discouraged by the difficult budget outlook. “It’s a great challenge to build [support for agricultural science] in a budget crisis,” he says, but “that is part of the juice.”

A first test came on 8 July, when a House of Representatives spending panel approved a $10 million increase for AFRI in 2016 as part of a larger USDA spending bill. The Senate has yet to begin work on its version of the USDA funding bill.