This week, a multitude of Congressional hearings are being held on the President’s FY 2014 budget request for the Department of Agriculture. USDA Secretary Vilsack appeared before the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday to defend the President’s request, Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE), Cathie Woteki, and the administrators within the REE mission area testified yesterday, and today, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Ed Avalos, and the administrators within this mission area (including the Acting Administrator for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) is appearing before the subcommittee.
While the REE mission area receives less than 2% of the overall USDA budget, research was a major topic of discussion during the Vilsack hearing. Many scientific societies who place absolute priority on increasing funding for the USDA’s flagship competitive grants program, AFRI, must have been disappointed that the focus of the discussions about research were on the importance of USDA’s intramural programs and facilities funded through the ARS. The hearing illustrates the reality of the constraints under which we must operate if we are to increase funding for agricultural research broadly. As former Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neil frequently said, “All politics is local”. This came through loud and clear at the Vilsack hearing. The subcommittee members were concerned about cuts in funding for research in their districts and the fact that their research facilities were not on the priority list for infrastructure improvement funding.
Because of the need for members of congress to focus on the impacts that legislation and appropriations have on their own districts, the various budget proposals over the past 20+ years to increase competitively awarded funding at USDA by taking funds from ARS or formula funds that support land grant institutions and extension, have most been dead on arrival in Congress. This is why the APS Public Policy Board has consistently advocated for net increases in spending for the entire REE mission area and has opposed efforts that would rob Peter (e.g., ARS) to pay Paul (e.g., AFRI).
We have been criticized occasionally for taking this position but it is starting to pay off. This year, the President’s budget request includes a “net” overall increase in funding for agricultural research. Included in the request is a significant increase in competitively awarded funding but it isn’t taken out of the ARS budget. While there are certainly winners and losers in the President’s budget request, the overall numbers should be our focus at this time. If we can hold onto the baseline and increase funding from there, overall research, extension, and education funding will rise (i.e., the whole boat will rise). The Administration deserves a big “thank-you” for requesting a net increase in funding for science at USDA.