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Agricultural Research, Education, and Extension: Issues and Background

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Agricultural research, education, and extension developed as a mission area within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the first 50 years of the department's existence. As currently organized, USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is the in-house scientific research agency. The Economic Research Service (ERS) analyzes statistical indicators in all agricultural issue areas in order to support public and private decision-making. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), which has field offices in most states and U.S. territories, collects and analyzes a broad range of data and administers the U.S. Census of Agriculture. The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) is the agency that channels a portion of annual USDA appropriations to states and U.S. territories to support higher education programs in agriculture, state and regional research, and continuing agricultural education and outreach to the public. When adjusted for inflation, appropriations for agricultural research, education, and extension have mostly remained level since the 1970s.

Agricultural research, education, and extension at the federal and state levels are supported through a combination of direct appropriations (to ARS, ERS, and NASS) and block grants to states, competitive grants, and congressionally designated grants (all administered by CSREES). Although these funding mechanisms are widely acknowledged to have served agriculture well, the larger scientific community has consistently argued that a greater proportion of USDA research funding should be distributed through the competitive, peer-reviewed grant process. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) maintains that competitive grants reach a large pool of talented scientists and stimulate new research in high priority areas. Recent Administration proposals to redirect funds to competitive grants from the block-grant funded programs (in the absence of new money) have drawn vigorous criticism from the colleges of agriculture in the states, and Congress has not adopted them. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees passed legislation in 1998 intended to capture new funds for competitive grants from the mandatory side of the USDA budget. The appropriations committees, however, have consistently prohibited those funds from being used to support the competitive grants program for which they were intended.

Under potential consideration in the expected farm bill debate in 2007 is a USDA task force recommendation (from 2004) to establish an independent, competitive grant-awarding National Institute for Food and Agriculture within the department, supported with new money. In the current pre-farm bill period, international trade issues and pressure for change in domestic farm support policies are causing many observers and policymakers to suggest that USDA should explore ways to support a broader range of U.S. producers than it currently does. Some have argued that USDA should invest more in research, rural development, and conservation programs, for example, and less in the traditional commodity programs.

This report will be updated as necessary.