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AIBS Comments on USDA Agricultural Research Roadmap

May 29, 2009

Dr. Rajiv Shah
Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250

Re: Request for comments regarding the Roadmap for agricultural research, education, and extension (REE_2009-0001)

Dear Dr. Shah,

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on the development of a roadmap for agricultural research, education, and extension at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) is a nonprofit scientific association dedicated to advancing biological research and education for the welfare of society. Founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences, AIBS became an independent, member-governed organization in the 1950s. AIBS is sustained by a membership of some 5,000 biologists and nearly 200 professional societies and scientific organizations representing the breadth of the biological sciences. The combined individual membership of the latter exceeds 250,000.

As you are aware, research is essential to a safe, secure, and robust agricultural sector. As Dr. G. Philip Robertson, a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), has so eloquently stated: "Agriculture is more than ever a knowledge-driven industry: advances in genetics, in field crop technology, in animal health, in food storage and processing, in pest protection and forest health - advances at all stages of the production chain are driven largely by research findings." Moreover, agricultural research not only helps feed and clothe the world, but also contributes to economic growth. As reported by the Economic Research Service, there is approximately a $10 return for each dollar spent on agricultural research.

In looking at the future of agricultural research at USDA, several research and planning topics should be addressed to better serve the needs of the research community and farmers. The Roadmap for agricultural research, education, and extension should address the need for long-term agricultural research, competitive extramural grants, scientific collections, ecosystem services research, and workforce planning.

Long-Term Agricultural Research

Society increasingly expects higher yields of agricultural products that are safe, environmentally sound, and socially responsible. To meet these needs, farmers must preserve or increase yields while also addressing the sustainability of their crops. Long-term agricultural research has the potential to fill many important knowledge gaps, including agricultural sustainability and resilience to changing climates. Although agricultural research grants lasting two or three years address some aspects of these issues, many indicators of agricultural sustainability and climate impacts cannot be measured on such short time scales. Detecting changes in soil organic matter and toxin loads, evaluating crop management techniques during drought, and assessing greenhouse gas mitigation can only be conducted after years or decades have passed. For instance, a 9-year study at the USDA Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland has shown that organic farming can improve soil organic matter better than no-till farming. "It takes time for organic matter to build up, so we wouldn't have seen these surprising results had we only looked after a few years," said lead scientist John Teasdale.

In 2003, a report by NAS recognized the value of long-term agricultural research and called for the USDA to pursue long-term research goals. The Research, Education, and Extension Office (REEO) should establish a network of long-term agricultural research stations. Such a network could be modeled after the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research Network, which aims to understand ecological phenomena over long temporal and broad spatial scales. Additionally, REEO could draw upon the experience of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which currently supports some long-term experiments. Once established, the network should work closely with other environmental observation networks and agencies to share basic data, such as net primary production and soil microbe community structure.

Extramural Research

In 2000, the National Research Council evaluated the USDA's competitive research program, the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program. The report recommended "continuing the process of merit-based peer review as the most effective method of competitively distributing funds for research in food, fiber, and natural resources." Although this program was reauthorized in the 2008 Farm Bill as the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative, the underlying merit of this program remains. Indeed, Congress recognized the importance of this program when it authorized funding of up to $700 million a year for competitive grants. In fiscal year (FY) 2009, the program was appropriated $201.5 million. The President's budget request for FY 2010 would flat fund the program. This level of funding is far short of levels recommended by the National Academies and authorized by Congress. The Roadmap should outline a plan to increase competitively awarded research grants in the coming years. The USDA should seek to fully fund AFRI at its authorized level of $700 million.

Scientific Collections

Natural science collections are valuable assets that help answer science questions that inform pressing policy issues, such as climate change, emerging diseases, loss of biodiversity, environmental contaminates, and pest invasions. Scientific collections are irreplaceable specimen and data repositories that are the basis for significant fields of scientific research, monitoring, and education. The USDA maintains 60 scientific collections, including biological specimens (e.g., native and weed plants, insect pests), tissue and cell cultures, fossils, and rocks and minerals.

In 2005, the Office of Science and Technology Policy recognized the value of scientific collections and commissioned the first ever survey of federal scientific collections. The Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections (IWGSC), co-chaired by USDA and the Smithsonian Institution, was formed to survey the status of federal scientific collections and to make recommendations for their management and use. In the report released this year, the IWGSC found that "these scientific collections are essential to supporting agency missions and are thus vital to supporting the global research enterprise." The Roadmap should build upon the work of the IWGSC to continue the preservation of scientific collections and to collaborate with other agencies to expand access to federal collections by the research community.

Ecosystem Services Research

Ecosystem services, as defined by the 2003 United Nations' Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are the "bene?ts people obtain from ecosystems." These services include a wide range of provisioning, regulating, and supporting services and can be provided by unmanaged or agricultural land. The positive externalities of agriculture can provide ecosystem benefits, such as improving water quality through changes in crop management, sequestering carbon, and enhancing wildlife habitat by providing quality food and habitats. These services have historically been viewed as free benefits to society, however ecosystem services can have a significant impact upon the economy. Studies have shown that ecosystem services of forests alone are globally valued at trillions of dollars annually, and many have recognized that market-based approaches to conservation are needed to protect ecosystem services before they are lost or converted to development.

The creation of the Office of Ecosystems Services and Markets (OESM), as required by Section 2709 of the 2008 Farm Bill, is a solid foundation to expanding markets for vital ecosystem services. The USDA can and should play a role in quantifying benefits of and establishing markets for ecosystem services. The success of this program, however, will largely depend on the available science. Investments in the basic biological, ecological, and agricultural sciences are needed in order to provide the information that the OESM will rely upon. The Roadmap should outline a plan for REEO to coordinate ecosystem services research with OESM's data needs. Much of this research will also be valuable in USDA's efforts to determine and mitigate the impacts of climate change on agricultural systems.

Workforce

Planning for the future of agricultural research also requires the consideration of an adequate workforce. Training, recruitment, and retention of scientists specializing in many biological, chemical, and statistical fields will be needed to fully implement the Roadmap. According to the ARS Workforce Plan for 2006-2010, 35 percent of research and service scientists within the agency will be eligible to retire by 2010. Recruitment of new scientists to replace retirees will be challenging because of declining student enrollment in soil and crop science programs and the difficulties of hiring postdoctoral scientists who are not US citizens. Indeed, ARS believes that more than half of Ph.D. graduates in relevant fields are ineligible for employment at the agency for this reason. The Roadmap should outline a plan for ensuring adequate numbers and qualifications of agricultural research staff in coming years, including support for graduate research fellowships. Additionally, the Roadmap should address the availability of extension workers that are able to communicate science to stakeholders.

Conclusion

The Roadmap is an opportunity for USDA to update and reevaluate its research priorities. Although USDA supported research has increased crop yield and economic growth in the agriculture industry in decades past, new directions are needed to meet the challenges of a changing climate. By investing in long-term research, competitive research, scientific collections, ecosystem services research, and the scientific workforce, USDA will be on a strong footing for the future.

Thank you for your consideration of our comments. If AIBS may provide further assistance to you on this or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact AIBS Director of Public Policy Dr. Robert Gropp at 202-628-1500.

Sincerely,

Richard T. O'Grady, Ph.D.
Executive Director

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