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White House Report Urges $700M Annual Boost for Ag Science

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A White House-appointed advisory council wants the federal government to boost its investments into agricultural research by an extra $700 million per year and to take steps to realign its funding to address several important scientific challenges.

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) said on Friday that the extramural research budget at the US Department of Agriculture should nearly double from $265 million to $500 million and that basic agricultural research at the National Science Foundation should increase from $120 million to $250 million.

PCAST made the recommendations in a new publication entitled, Report to the President on Agricultural Preparedness and the Agricultural Research Enterprise.

In the report, PCAST said the government should use $150 million per year for at least five years to create six multidisciplinary research institutes that would focus on "emerging challenges" to agriculture and would be partly funded by public-private partnerships. Under the plan, USDA would run this program in coordination with other science agencies, including NSF, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health.

The report also calls for an investment of $180 million per year to "greatly expand" a fellowship program that awards competitive grants to graduate students and postdocs.

Although competitive grants are "widely recognized" as creating more innovation than grants based on other mechanisms, the proportion of federal funding for agricultural research that is awarded competitively is "far below" the amount awarded this way in the other scientific fields, PCAST found.

PCAST also recommended that USDA should re-balance its intramural research budget away from commodities such as corn, soy, rice, wheat, and cotton, which are focal areas for the private sector, and toward other important areas that do not receive as much attention from the agribusiness community.

“Private industry has an essential role to play in agricultural research, especially when it comes to scaling up and commercializing new agricultural developments and commodities,” Barbara Schaal, co-chair of the PCAST Agricultural Preparedness Working Group, said in a statement on Friday.

“But 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. These are the domains where the federal government can and should take the lead," Schaal said.

PCAST identified several of these pressing scientific challenges that it wants to address, including managing pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increasing the efficiency of water use; reducing the environmental impact of agriculture; adapting to climate change; and finding ways to accommodate the demands of the bioenergy field.