Alarm on the Farm

Scientists Come to D.C. to Protest Cuts in Agricultural Research

Posted February 25, 2005 at 5:45pm

Hundreds of agricultural scientists and professors are descending on Washington, D.C., this week to protest proposed research grant cuts in President Bush’s 2006 budget.

They will make the case that steep reductions in agricultural research would hurt not just the nation’s farmers but also impact consumers, patients awaiting advances in medical research, the environment, and employees of universities across the nation.

“It’s not just cows and plows — it’s medical science. We’re into all sorts of things,” said Tom Payne, dean of the University of Missouri’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

Indeed, Payne and other deans say they could be forced to end or scale back research projects on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as “mad cow disease,” as well as those designed to develop pig organs that can be transplanted into human beings, to name a few.

In addition, thousands of professors, research scientists and other staff members at universities could lose their jobs because of the cuts, according to Jeff Weintraub, spokesman for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

“Something’s going to have to give,” warned Fred Cholick, the agriculture dean at Kansas State University and budget chairman for NASULGC’s board of agriculture assemblies.

All in all, about 300 deans, professors and agricultural researchers are expected on Capitol Hill this week to target the Members of key committees, particularly Appropriations, as well as lawmakers from all 50 states, Weintraub said. Indeed, since every state has a land grant college or state university, most Members have constituents who could be hurt by the cuts, he added.

In his Feb. 7 budget proposals, Bush proposed lowering the cap on farm subsidies and reducing the Agriculture Department’s discretionary spending by nearly 12 percent. Included in this rollback would be a $2.3 billion cut in general research and education for agriculture, forestry and other programs under the department’s purview.

But a relatively modest slice of that research budget is the one that has attracted the ire of agriculture academics. Bush wants to cut “formula grants” for agricultural research funding by half, from $179 million in 2005 to $89 million in 2006. Additionally, the relatively modest $5 million for animal health research would be eliminated, and forestry research would be halved from $22 million in 2005 to $11 million in 2006.

Bush’s proposal envisions moving away from formula grants and emphasizing grants that are competitively distributed. Indeed, the Bush budget proposes increasing National Research Initiative Competitive Grant funding from $180 million to $250 million and creating a new regional, state and local grants program funded at $75 million.

However, because formula grants can be spent on a wider array of expenses, universities have come to depend on them to foot the bill for administrative expenditures in addition to direct research.

As a result, deans of several agricultural colleges said they would be forced to lay off professors, graduate assistants and other research staff.

The push back over the relatively modest cuts at agricultural schools is just a small part of a growing controversy in rural states. Officials in states that Bush carried easily in the 2004 election are angry that he has targeted them right out of the box.

Agriculture Department spokesman Ed Loyd said the administration “strongly believes that research should be funded through peer-reviewed competitive grants. … It’s the best mechanism to attract high-caliber science.”

Loyd noted that the changes would be phased in over two years, with a 50 percent cut in formula funds this year and a complete elimination of the funds by fiscal 2007. In addition, Bush has proposed allowing research universities to use all or part of their local, state and regional competitive grants for administrative funds to pay for faculty salaries or other general agricultural college improvements. Previously, only 20 percent of competitive grants could be used for administrative purposes.

But Cholick said the two-year phase-in is not enough time for colleges to restructure their funding systems and that competitive grants will pit researchers against each other, rather than facilitating regional and multi-university projects.

“It’s not that we’re against competitive grants. We’re for a balanced portfolio of funding because of the nature of what we do,” Cholick said.

Payne added that the relatively modest federal investment in agricultural colleges through formula grants has a ripple effect on states and private donors.

At the University of Missouri, for example, the $5 million the federal government gave the university last year was matched nearly 3-to-1 by the state government. That money in turn was leveraged to attract an additional $45 million in donations and grants from the agricultural industry and private donors. All told, the $5 million formula grant helped Missouri’s agricultural college attract another $58 million for research, said Payne.

The formula-grant-funded “mad cow” project at Kansas State University, for example, is working to study different forms of transmissible brain diseases in animals, said Daryl Lund, executive director of the Midwestern region’s agriculture experiment stations and an agriculture professor at the University of Wisconsin.

“It really will cause a significant downsizing in these experiment stations,” Lund said, adding that a decline in the number of professors would result in a shortage of applications for competitive grants that could improve food safety, among other things.

“We could be talking about food-borne illnesses,” Lund said. “Those are the kinds of [research projects] you could lose.”

Because the proposed cuts to agricultural research potentially affects all 50 states, it appears unlikely that Congress will acquiesce to the proposal. But if lawmakers decide to keep agricultural research funding at or above the fiscal 2005 levels, other programs in other departments will likely have to scale back their operations in order to meet Bush’s call for a 1 percent cut in all non-defense, non-homeland security discretionary spending.

Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond, a member of the Senate’s agriculture appropriations subcommittee, has already expressed opposition to the funding changes, particularly those that affect the University of Missouri.

“This is a widely supported program and an important part of the Land Grant system which supports our agricultural economy,” said Bond spokesman Rob Ostrander in an e-mail. “There is strong bipartisan support for the Land Grant system, and Sen. Bond will be among those trying to find ways to meet budget targets without undermining the University’s research and education capabilities.”

The cuts, if enacted, could also affect other prominent lawmakers.

According to an analysis commissioned by NASULGC, research projects at the University of Georgia — located in the home state of Senate Agriculture Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R) — could need to be scaled back, including studies on plant genes and how to help tobacco farmers transition to other crops. The analysis estimates that 60 professors and staff would have to be laid off. Chambliss’ office declined to comment.

Similarly, Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) could see Mississippi State University lay off 115 faculty, under the Bush budget. Cochran was not available for comment, according to a spokeswoman.