The notion that competition produces better science is an underlying principle of the American research enterprise -- with the possible exception, historically, of agriculture. Just 10 percent of the more than $2.6 billion that the federal government spends annually on agriculture research is awarded through peer review, with the rest flowing to scientists at the U.S. Agriculture Department or to researchers at land-grant colleges through formulas that have gone largely unchanged for decades.
As Congress engages in the every-half-decade ritual of reviewing and renewing federal agriculture programs, lawmakers and academic groups are once again pushing proposals that would significantly increase the proportion of federal agricultural research funds that are awarded competitively through peer review -- not by cutting back on formula funds, but by sharply increasing spending over all, with a bias toward competitively awarded grants.
At a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, senators and research officials discussed a trio of proposals for revamping the Agriculture Department's research programs and the way the department distributes its funds. Although opinions varied on exactly the right approach, there was widespread agreement that a greater proportion of the money should be awarded competitively.
"My view, and I believe the view of the vast majority of the scientific community, is that the core of scientific progress comes from competitive grants," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While formula funds have played an important role in building the agricultural research infrastructure, he said, "the core of research funding really should come from competitive, peer-reviewed grant programs."
Added Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the Senate committee: "The intramural system and noncompetitive grants may have served our purpose for a time, but if we're going to move ahead ... the old system of formula grants just doesn't move fast enough."
The hearing, part of the Senate panel's overall reauthorization of the so-called farm bill, was called to discuss possible changes to the Agriculture Department's research programs. Three proposals were discussed: one from the Bush administration, one that emerged from an independent federal committee's 2004 review, and a recent proposal from a coalition of university groups.
The Agriculture Department's own farm bill proposal for research focuses fairly narrowly on the structure of the department's programs. It would combine into one agency the Agricultural Research Service, the department's main in-house research arm, with the Cooperative Research, Education and Extension Service, which oversees the department's external programs with colleges and communities. It would authorize some additional funds for bioenergy and specialty crop research, but otherwise leave the flow of funds alone.
William H. Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, presented a 2004 proposal (from an Agriculture Department panel created by the 2002 farm bill) to create a National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the Agriculture Department. This proposal, which was introduced in legislative form in the 109th Congress but did not advance, would largely leave the department's research structure alone but create a new program of competitive, merit-based grants for basic agricultural research. The proposal would increase funds for competitive agricultural research by $1 billion over five years.
The last proposal, known as Create-21 (for Creating Research Extension and Teaching Excellence for the 21st Century), would build on both of the other two proposals. Like the administration's proposal, it would revamp the Agriculture Department's research programs (though it would go even further, by also wrapping into the single agency the Economic Research Service and Forest Service research and development) and nearly double the amount of research spending over all, with a sharp focus on competitive research.
Unlike some past calls to reshape the balance between formula-driven and competitive funds by shifting money from one to the other, though, the Create-21 proposal -- which Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is expected to introduce in legislative form soon, -- calls for modest increases in formula funds from the 2007 levels, and much sharper increases in competitive funds. By providing 7 of every 10 new dollars provided for agriculture research going forward to competitive studies, the proposal would change the proportion of formula vs. competitive funds from the current 90/10 to about 58/42 within seven years.
Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the agriculture college at Michigan State University and a leader of the Create-21 group (which is overseen by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges), said some members of the group wanted to make all new funds competitive, and others argued for moving formula funds into competitive programs. But after much debate, the group overwhelmingly supported a proposal to try to lift all boats, he said. "We recommended [doing this by adding] new money so as not to compete with the ongoing [formula-driven] programs, which we respect," Armstrong said. He noted that reducing formula-based funds, or even failing to increase them at least somewhat, would hurt historically black and other minority-serving institutions, which get a share of formula funds.
The other advantages of the Create-21 proposal over the others, Armstrong said, is that it would also add funds for education and for extension.
Harkin, the Senate committee's chairman, said he would fight hard for more funds for agricultural research and other programs. But he expressed some philosophical qualms about the proposals to streamline the structure of the department's research programs, which he said had been tried and rejected nearly three decades ago.
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