Thank you for the opportunity to present comments at this 2010 Stakeholder Meeting. I am Dr. John Sherwood and serve as the President-Elect of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). Founded in 1908, APS is the premier educational, professional, and scientific society dedicated to the promotion of plant health and plant disease management for the global good. The Society represents nearly 5,000 scientists whose work advances the understanding of the science of plant diseases and its application to plant health. The APS has served as an unbiased resource on plant health for USDA and other Federal agencies for many years. The progress made in plant health programs in the United States through support of research, teaching and extension from Federal, state and private sources has facilitated the sustainability and profitability of America’s plant production industries.
As indicated in previously submitted written comments due for this stakeholder meeting before the release of the Requests for Applications (RFAs) for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the APS supports many of the broad areas of endeavor covered in the RFAs for AFRI. We fully agree that priorities for the extramural programs of AFRI should include improved opportunities for education and training of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students; that food safety research may be enhanced by collaboration between food scientists and plant microbial biologists; that understanding of the biology of plant associated and soil matrix microorganisms is essential; that insight into managing how the needs of society for food and fuel in a changing environment is vital, and that global food security is critical for sustaining society. Future timely releases of RFAs with an appropriate response window will facilitate the development of the best proposals to address these and other issues. The APS also appreciates the desire of the agency to try to have a significant and major impact on societal issues with a constrained budget. The APS has long been a robust proponent of increased funding for competitive programs in USDA, and appreciates the agency trying to provide larger and longer grants.
However, as the RFAs have now come to fruition there are several concerns of the plant health community on the approach the agency is taking in directing the scientific endeavor. Again, the issue is not with the priorities of the agency, but what many of the APS membership feel are missed opportunities to engage and support a breadth of community driven scientific research, education and extension activities. While a goal of the current RFAs may be to provide immediate solutions to current problems, providing sound, viable and sustainable solutions requires a broad base of knowledge resulting from scientific inquiry. There has been a history of excellence in the science of plant health in the approach taken under the previous National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (NRI-CGP) in which the scientific community played a significant role in working with the agency to establish priorities that served the goals of the nation in the science of plant health and ensuring that the best science was funded through a rigorous peer review process. This sentiment is captured in the “Portfolio Annual Report 2009: Plant Systems” released in January of this year in which the NRI-CGP is noted to have “shifted its areas of emphasis over the years and is in alignment with the current state of plant science,” and that “productivity was high” for the programs; along with other supportive comments of the Plant Systems programs.
Hence, we are not so dismayed that a favorite funding program may have been cut as the community has come to realize that opportunities shift as science moves forward. The plant health community has been a proponent of the agency’s competitive programs investing in the science of genomics, microbial communities, microbial-plant associations, plant biosecurity, and food safety as each of these became priorities. Although sometimes stressful to portions of the plant health community, the scientific community historically has worked with the agency in establishing natural program progressions that permit the community to identify the best creative science to make progress in the foundations of plant health from which solutions follow. The result of this comprehensive interaction is that USDA competitive programs have complemented, not overlapped with, the mission of other Federal agencies. For the breadth of plant health science that supports agriculture and feeds the world, it is important that the USDA competitive programs continue to support a unique core mission that is not and will not be supported in the funding portfolio of other Federal agencies.
We are concerned that the current AFRI structure discourages the involvement of the plant science community in identifying priorities and facilitating recognition of the best science, and that the discontinuous funding of knowledge areas will impact the broad foundation necessary for sustained growth of the science of plant health. For example, although more than 8,000 species of true fungi cause diseases on plants, in the RFA for this year there is a singular focus on research on diseases caused by the fungal-like Oomycetes. As a group, the true fungi cause more than two-thirds of infectious plant diseases and the most agricultural losses due to disease. All economically important crops are affected by one or more fungal diseases. The RFA seemingly has removed mention of the true fungi which cause a plethora of diseases, and it seems striking that the program direction is no longer aligned with need or importance and overlooks the potential for further leveraging of the significant investment made by the agency in research on true fungi. Without even the potential for competitive funding support, programs addressing these other important issues may not survive in an atmosphere of uncertain funding.
We are concerned that the agency may be limiting the potential to meet the goal of solving the most pressing agricultural problems by directing the scientific approaches that can be used by investigators. For example, is “epigenetic regulation of crop plants” necessarily the best way to enhance water use efficiency? Would the advances that have occurred in genomic sequencing, regulation of transgene expression, and microbial signaling have occurred if the agency had previously predetermined the best way to advance these fields? Had it been left to the funding agencies, support for genomics would not have occurred and we would not have the transformative science that we have today. Peer review panels, feedback from sessions such as this, and discussions with representatives of scientific societies and industry organizations have worked to make significant advances in the plant science that has been supported by the agency. We find that the opportunity for meaningful input necessary for rational program changes was lacking in the current RFAs.
While we are pleased to find a new project for National Loblolly Pine Genome Sequencing under the Sustainable Bioenergy Program, and a National Cereal Germplasm Phenotyping project under Climate Change, they are not inclusive enough to consider other sustainable approaches to bioenergy and opportunities to address climate change or global food security. For example, the Unites States is well-poised to lead an international effort designed to genotypically characterize all animal and plant microbial pathogens and establish a well-curated genotype library available to the international community. The benefits of genetically characterizing the pathogens of the world will be enormous for global food security and meeting our bioenergy needs. Comparative genomics and bioinformatics will identify the genetic basis of microbial pathogenicity and virulence, and enable rapid development of intelligently designed diagnostics. The cost of characterization will be recovered and dividends compounded over time as disease outbreak interventions become better targeted and effective.
In closing, the APS appreciates the efforts underway by the agency to raise the visibility of and hopefully associated funding for the plant sciences. We agree with the agency that the recommendations of the National Research Council document, “A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution” provides an insightful roadmap for implementing change. However, a significant recommendation from this report, that “the national New Biology Initiative be an interagency effort, that it have a timeline of at least 10 years, and that its funding be in addition to current research budgets" was overlooked in the transformation of competitive programs offered by USDA. As a significant stakeholder in the competitive grants portfolio, APS hopes the agency would stay true to its unique mission in the portfolio of Federal competitive funding so that the scientific community that protects the health of our nation’s plant production systems has the resources to undertake the science to achieve that goal, and the agency moves forward in an interagency effort to address issues that will require a significant commitment across the entire Federal funding portfolio. Again, thank you for this time on the agenda.