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Agriculture Research Board Faces Full Slate of Issues

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Gates’ foundation is heavily involved with improving the productivity of small farmers around the world and will be working closely with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.

Edwards said people in his industry will be looking at the board composition for “folks who will help push the cutting-edge science. We look for basic researchers whose discoveries will really fuel and fill the pipeline with new technology to help feed people.”

Supporters of the foundation concept said it was necessary because Congress has essentially flat-lined federal spending for basic agricultural research.

The American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America were among groups that pushed the idea in Congress, said Karl Anderson, government affairs director for the three organizations.

“We’re cognizant that in this current climate of concern about the deficit and debt, there isn’t going to be a whole bunch of new money flowing in,” Anderson said. “We were looking for outside-the-box ways to bring additional research to bear on the big challenges that face agriculture.”

A Panoply of Issues

There’s plenty to keep researchers busy, with areas such as water security and climate change that will affect farming practices.

Anderson’s members think the foundation board members should be able to look at big picture issues and know “they are not there to protect some small or individual interest.”

Basic research, especially study done in the public domain, functions as a building block for applied science research. But basic research is not sexy and often takes years to finish, making it less attractive to lawmakers who want quick and tangible results. Public spending at state and federal levels for basic research and development peaked in 1994 when inflation is factored in, according to a 2011 report by the Economic Research Service, the analytical arm of the Agriculture Department.

On the flip side, private agri-companies continue to spend strongly on science geared to creating profitable products. Unlike the results of publicly financed research, companies generally do not share details because they are proprietary.

How much of the foundation-sponsored research results will be in the public realm is something the board will determine. The law that created the foundation says the entity is to share information with the agricultural research community, although it does not require that all research findings be shared.

Two years ago, a presidential council on science and technology said the United States needed to invest an additional $700 million per year in the Agriculture Department and National Science Foundation research efforts. The council recommended that federally sponsored research should concentrate more on basic research to help farmers control new pests, pathogens and invasive plants, increase the efficient use of water and adapt food production to changing climate conditions.

Council members acknowledged that it would be difficult to persuade congressional appropriators to substantially increase spending for research. For fiscal 2015, House and Senate appropriators have cited budget constraints but still propose increases for the Agricultural Research Services, the prime agency for basic research. The House bill, HR 4800, calls for $1.3 billion, a 14 percent increase above the 2014 enacted level. The Senate measure, S 2389, would provide $1.14 billion, a less than 2 percent increase.

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