By DOUG SCHMITZ
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hoping to merge the various aspects of agricultural science, technology and research, last month the USDA officially launched the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in Washington, D.C.
“The opportunity to truly transform a field of science happens, at best, once a generation,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Right now, I am convinced, is the USDA’s opportunity to work with the Congress, the other science agencies and with our partners in industry, academia and the nonprofit sector, to bring about transformative change.
“We can build on recent scientific discoveries – incredible advances in sequencing plant and animal genomes, for example. We have new and powerful tools – biotechnology, nanotechnology and large-scale computer simulations – applicable to all types of agriculture.”
Born from the 2008 farm bill to be an agriculture research body similar to the National Institutes of Health and to replace the USDA’s existing Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES), the NIFA will be the department’s extramural research enterprise.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the NIFA will be a research startup company – we will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to generate real results for the American people,” Vilsack said.
According to the NIFA’s new director, Dr. Roger Beachy, the institute will fund research, extension and education in the same way the CSREES did.
“The new agency will have greater focus in its support, establish research programs of larger scale and longer duration, so that specific goals can be achieved,” said Beachy, a world-renowned plant scientist hired from the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, who won the Wolf Prize in Agriculture and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Beachy said research areas of high interest for the NIFA include: production of biomass and biofuel, improving food safety, increasing nutrition and reducing obesity of our children and protection of the environment while developing foods in a sustainable manner.
The NIFA will continue support of land grant institutions via formula funding and of other activities similar to CSREES.
“In addition, smaller, less specific areas of research will receive support as in the past,” he said. “It is also expected that the grand challenges will engage all sectors of the NIFA. We have proposed that the work be conducted through four sub-institutes that will be formally named in the near future.”
As an agency of the USDA, the NIFA’s budget is that of the former CSREES, and will have increasing focus on the competitive grant programs of the agency and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), along with other specific topic areas of competitive grants, Beachy said.
“For example, the Specialty Crops Initiative; the Initiative for Organic and Sustainable Agriculture; and others that are currently funded in the NIFA budget,” he said. “In total, the NIFA will disperse slightly above $1 billion for research, extension and education during the 2010 fiscal year.”
Asked who would be tapped to staff the NIFA, Beachy said since the agency is responsible for the extramural grants of the USDA, its activities will be carried out by other scientists and educators around the United States, including land grant institutions, private universities and institutes, and the institutions that were established to serve primarily African-American students, Native Americans and other groups.
“The grand challenges are very complex and the solution to the challenges will take many years, and the intellect of many different scientists in a variety of different disciplines if they are to be met,” he said.
“It will require the involvement of mathematicians, physicists, biologists, agricultural scientists, engineers, educators, applied scientists, economists and many others to develop the solutions and to implement them in society.”
To attract such skills and intellect, Beachy said the NIFA would draw on scientists and technologists from across the spectrum of U.S. institutions, as well as from around the globe.
“It will also require collaboration between – and the involvement of – other governmental agencies,” he said. “For example, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Institute of Health, among others, to achieve the level of funding required to reach solutions to these challenges.”
Eventually, what will set the NIFA apart from other government agencies, Beachy said, will be its inclusion of extension and education programs, both youth and adult, in its mission areas.
“The extension services, 4-H and other USDA-administered funds, play a critical role in so many different segments of the lives of rural and urban America,” he said.
While the NIFA’s organizational structure is currently under way, Beachy said the agency’s final organization and staffing is expected to be completed in early 2010.