NDSU's Coston takes center stage on research spending

WASHINGTON -- D.C. Coston, the North Dakota State University vice president for agriculture and university extension, is emerging as a major player in the battles over the direction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new research division, t...

WASHINGTON -- D.C. Coston, the North Dakota State University vice president for agriculture and university extension, is emerging as a major player in the battles over the direction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new research division, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

During the 2008 farm bill debate, Congress was troubled by the long-term decline in publicly funded agriculture research and included a provision to turn USDA's Cooperative State Research and Extension Service into a National Institute for Food and Agricul-

ture. The idea is that NIFA will gain the same prestige as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and also get more funding.

The farm bill gave NIFA the so-called formula or capacity funds that all land grant colleges get each year and expanded competitive grants, which scientists consider more prestigious because they are awarded by panels of scientists who review the applications.

NIFA and the new emphasis on competitive grants provides both opportunity for NDSU and other land grant colleges, particularly the smaller ones, to get money for innovative projects and also competition from larger land grants and nonland grant schools that may have more sophisticated grant writing departments or famous names like Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Close watch

Coston chairs the farm bill committee of the American Association of Public and Land Grant Universities' Board of Agriculture Assembly and it is his job to monitor NIFA's development over the next five years.

At a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Sept. 30, Coston made clear that he is watching carefully to see how Obama administration officials proceed.

The land grant schools backed NIFA and generally are pleased with the Obama administration's implementation, Coston told the subcommittee, but were disappointed that the administration decided that the NIFA director would report to an undersecretary for research rather than the secretary of agriculture and are watching to see how the structure of the new institute develops.

But Coston emphasized at the hearing and in an interview that NIFA needs more money if it is to succeed.

"Clearly, this agency will only reach its full potential through greatly enhanced funding," Coston said.


The 2008 farm bill authorized spending of up to $700 million for agricultural research per year, but the fiscal year 2010 agriculture appropriations bill recently approved by the House and Senate included $2.76 billion, $174 million above 2009. Of that money, $1.25 billion went to the Agricultural Research Service, another USDA division, and $1.343 billion to NIFA, including an increase of nearly $61 million for competitive agricultural research grants.


While the agriculture committees wrote the farm bill that authorized money for agricultural research, congressional appropriations committees that have to decide what USDA programs most need money have the power to dip into the money set aside for research to pay for what they consider more pressing problems such as food safety and infant formula for poor children. The appropriators also have to decide how much money should go to the land grant schools in formula funds and how much should be put into competitive grants.

Coston noted that the appropriators did not dip into the mandatory money this year as they have in the past and said the land grants' "main priority" would be to protect that money while pushing for additional funds.

Academic leaders, farm lobbyists, officials and congressional aides warned that if Congress doesn't provide more money, NIFA will become mired in the battles that have gone on for decades between small and large land grant colleges, other schools and USDA's ARS.


In a ceremony Oct. 8 at the National Press Club attended by scientists and lobbyists, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack launched NIFA and emphasized the importance of bold initiatives rather than more commonplace research.

"It is no exaggeration to say that NIFA will be a research 'start-up' company. We will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to general real results for the American people."

Vilsack also noted that Roger Beachy, a plant scientist from the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, will head it.

Vilsack said the institute would focus on five areas -- global food security and hunger, climate change, sustainable energy, childhood obesity and food safety. Beachy said there would be four sub-


institutes and, within his office, a center for international programs.

Vilsack and Agriculture Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Rajiv Shah, to whom Beachy will report, noted that President Obama has proposed spending 3 percent of U.S gross domestic product on all science, but neither Vilsack nor Shah mentioned how much money the Obama administration will request for agricul-

tural research in the upcoming fiscal year 2011 budget.

New generation

In what appeared to be an appeal to the audience to lobby for more money, Vilsack said, "I am asking today for a commitment of will and energy to bring about our generation's new era of agricultural science."

Neither Shah, who was a medical doctor before he worked on Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign and later went to Seattle-based Gates Foundation, nor Beachy comes out of the land grant system as many past USDA research officials have.

Beachy's appointment already has proven controversial. Organic and small farm advocates have criticized Beachy's appointment because he supports genetic modification of seeds. Beachy said in an interview he hopes those groups will learn that he is "pragmatic, not an ideologue," but added that he regrets that the definition of organic food excludes genetic modification. Beachy said he shares with organic advocates the goal of reducing use of pesticides.

Shah has emphasized that he wants to commission "breakthrough" research by emphasizing a few select areas, which is the research system used at the Gates Foundation where he worked. Shah has not shown much interest in more mundane research, but in an interview he said USDA would continue to support research on local agricultural problems such as wheat scab in the Midwest.


"We realize production systems are local," Shah told Agweek.

Coston praised the appointments of both Shah and Beachy At the hearing, however, Coston stressed that USDA needs to maintain the formula funds to build capacity at land grant colleges even while it makes competitive grants. The formula funds, supported research against wheat scab and the development of new wheat varieties

"We are more than willing to compete, but we need some capacity," Coston said.

The formula funds are "the glue" that keep the land grants together, he added.

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