Sprucing Up the Ag Labs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture bills its Beltsville Agricultural Research Center (BARC) as "The World's Largest Most Diversified Agricultural Research Complex." Still, the place is a shadow of its former self—the scientific staff is down about 40% since its heydey in the 1950s—and it's in dire need of repair.

There are some new labs on the campus, but the bovine genetics program and others make do in 1930s-era buildings that have never been updated. "They're doing First World science in Third World buildings," says John Peter Thompson, who heads NARA-B, a group that advocates on behalf of BARC. The stimulus package would come to BARC's rescue, plus provide upgrades for many of USDA's 100+ research facilities across the country.

The funds are to the tune of $209 million, which falls short of the $315 million that USDA said it needed last year to catch up on deferred maintenance. A USDA official says the agency has started prioritizing its list.

Fixing leaky roofs is hardly a bad thing, but what ag research advocates really want, of course, is more funds for science. Thomas Van Arsdall, director of the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, is trying to look on the bright side. "I don't really care about buildings," he admits. "But obviously if [stimulus funding] improves the lab, it would make for better science."