Land-grant universities worried about possible cuts

Dec 4, 2009
by DTN
Land-grant universities worried about possible cuts

A coalition of 50 farm and agriculture groups is asking the Obama administration to almost double the USDA budget for competitive research grants to $500 million in its fiscal year 2011 budget request to Congress.

The groups are also asking the administration to avoid cutting core funding for land-grant colleges to provide more money for competitive research grants.

President Barack Obama will send the budget proposal to Congress in February, but agency officials are now meeting with the Office of Management and Budget to present their budget proposals and compete with each other.

The request comes as Agriculture Undersecretary for Agricultural Research, Education and Economics Rajiv Shah is preparing to leave his post to become administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Shah’s confirmation hearing for the USAID job was scheduled for last Tuesday. His nomination must be confirmed by the Senate.

Land-grant officials have expressed concern that without Shah, USDA’s research division will be without strong leadership as the budget is prepared. The White House is not likely to announce a new nominee for the research undersecretary position until Shah is in place at USAID.

The coalition includes the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Board on Agriculture Assembly, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, and many commodity groups including the National Association of Wheat Growers.

In a Nov. 25 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House Budget

Director Peter Orzag, the groups noted that the fiscal year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill provided $262 million for the competitive grants program known as the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, but that USDA has been able to fund only a quarter or less of the proposals received in recent years.

The 2008 farm bill authorized funding for up to $700 million per year for competitive grants by 2012, but the appropriations committees in Congress make the final decision on how much to provide.

There has long been a debate within agriculture research circles over the value of what land-grant colleges call “core capacity programs” also known as “formula funds,” and the competitive grants.

Some Obama administration officials are considered more inclined toward the competitive grants on the grounds that they produce higher-quality research, but landgrant officials say the regular funds are vital to their programs.

The groups warned Vilsack and Orzag, “We must emphasize that increases in competitive research cannot be at the expense or exclusion of funding for the core capacity programs at land-grant institutions or USDA’s intramural research activities.

“In fact, these programs must grow substantially to ensure that we have the capability to address the ever-increasing emergent threats in agricultural production and food safety, while continuing ongoing efforts on issues such as diet and nutrition and environmental stewardship.

Similarly, proposals that reduce the farm safety net to fund increases in research will be unproductive.” — DTN