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Wheat in Oklahoma.

Wheat in Oklahoma.

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White House to ask for big boost for farm science funding

Farm research backers are making some political gains in their push to double funding for the U.S. government’s premier competitive grants program for agricultural science.

The Obama administration this week announced that it will ask Congress to appropriate $700 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) in its 2017 budget request, to be released 9 February.

The ambitious request—double AFRI’s current budget, and $250 million more than the White House requested in 2016—represents a coup for research lobbyists seeking to build political support for ramping up AFRI’s budget.

But White House backing won’t assure success in Congress. The request comes as lawmakers will be working under a pre-existing budget agreement that calls for essentially flat overall budgets in 2017, and hence little leeway to splurge on new spending. Any move to appropriate more money for AFRI could spur a conflict over USDA spending priorities, because it could mean taking money from other agricultural programs. In addition, the request will arrive during a presidential election year and President Barack Obama’s last year in office, potentially giving the White House even less sway than usual.

Still, the hefty request represents an early win in the annual budget process for farm science advocates. “With this budget, the Administration has assured agricultural research as part of its legacy,” said Thomas Grumbly, president of the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, a Washington, D.C.–based, nonpartisan education group with a separate lobbying arm, in a statement “It’s now Congress’ turn to make this a priority.”

In announcing the request on 3 February, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted in a statement that "food production must increase to meet the demands of world population projected to pass 9 billion by 2050,” and that climate change and other factors are posing new challenges to farmers. “Funding in research to respond to these challenges should be considered as an investment in our nation's future,” he said.

Much of USDA’s research budget is handed out to in-house researchers and 76 state universities, following often complex formulae established by Congress. Critics say that system often has resulted in the funding of mediocre research. In contrast, researchers must compete for funds from AFRI, which was created in 2008, in much the same way that scientists vie for grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

In the last 4 years, AFRI’s review process has identified $3.85 billion in grants worthy of funding. But its limited annual budget has meant that AFRI could award just $950 million.

Advocates cite such numbers in arguing that the federal government has neglected farm science over the past few decades. In the 1940s, almost 40% of U.S. R&D spending was directed toward agriculture. Today, agriculture research accounts for just 2% of that total.

“The last great surge in agricultural research wound down in the 1960s,” Grumbly said. “It is great to see that our elected officials are applying political muscle so that the next great surge of research can begin.”

Grumbly and other advocates probably won’t know just how far that muscle will take them, however, until late this year, when Congress is expected to complete the annual appropriations process.