Agricultural Research: More Efficient and Accountable System Could Better Respond to New Challenges

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-03-13.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Committee on Agriculture,
                          Nutrition, and Forestry,
                          U.S. Senate

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
9:00 a.m. EST
March 13, 1997            RESEARCH

                          More Efficient and
                          Accountable System Could
                          Better Respond to New
                          Statement of
                          Robert A. Robinson, Director
                          Food and Agriculture Issues
                          Resources, Community, and Economic
                          Development Division

             Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

             We are pleased to be here today to present our views on the U.S.
             agricultural research system. In particular, we will be discussing what
             could be done to help the system better respond to the challenges faced by
             the agricultural sector now and in the next century.

             It is difficult to begin any discussion on how the research system could be
             changed without first acknowledging its many accomplishments. For over
             a century, publicly funded agricultural research has been an important
             catalyst in creating a vigorous agricultural economy and a bountiful supply
             of inexpensive food and fiber. Along with extension and education,
             agricultural research has helped transform U.S. agriculture into the
             productive, technology-based operation it is today.

             While its numerous achievements have served the nation well, we believe
             that changes are needed to strengthen the system so that it can better
             respond to current and future food and agricultural needs. In particular,
             the system could be made more efficient through such measures as closing
             and consolidating federal laboratories and increasing collaboration among
             public and private researchers. In addition, greater accountability is
             needed to foster quality research and reduce unnecessary duplication.

             The nation’s publicly funded agricultural research system is based on a
Background   federal-state partnership in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture
             (USDA) and the states, through their land grant institutions, play multiple
             roles in conducting and funding agricultural research, extension, and
             education activities. This system, whose roots go back to the nineteenth
             century, today comprises over 100 USDA laboratories, over 100 land grant
             institutions located throughout the United States,1 and thousands of
             publicly funded agricultural research scientists. For fiscal year 1998, USDA
             has requested about $1.8 billion for its Research, Education, and
             Economics mission area. This amount includes about $800 million for
             in-house research conducted by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
             and $840 million for the Cooperative State Research, Education, and
             Extension Service (CSREES), which administers funding for research at land
             grant institutions.

             The land grant colleges include the colleges mandated under the Morrill Act of 1862, the second
             Morrill Act of 1890 (historically black land grant colleges), and the Elementary and Secondary
             Education Reauthorization Act of 1994 (Native American colleges).

             Page 1                                                                        GAO/T-RCED-97-101
                        While many agricultural research needs have changed, the structure
Existing Structure Is   created to meet these needs has remained essentially intact. In our 1996
Inefficient             review of agricultural research,2 we reported that ARS alone occupies
                        almost 3,000 buildings on about 400,000 acres at 107 laboratory locations
                        and 35 worksites in the United States, Puerto Rico, and several foreign
                        locations. Consolidation may offer the opportunity for reducing some of
                        the overhead costs associated with these facilities. In fiscal year 1996, ARS
                        allocated over $67 million (or 9.5 percent of its appropriated research
                        funds) to overhead costs, and CSREES allocated $14.7 million (or
                        3.6 percent of its total research budget) to overhead.

                        In addition to the associated overhead costs, USDA’s existing infrastructure
                        has hindered its ability to move into new research areas that require
                        different equipment and scientific expertise. In our 1996 review, we noted
                        that some USDA infrastructure, such as quarantine facilities and special
                        equipment for work on recombinant DNA, was acquired for specific
                        research and cannot be easily modified for use in other areas. Further, the
                        over 1,900 scientists conducting research at these facilities have developed
                        specialized expertise. It takes many years to develop this expertise as well
                        as the teamwork that develops within laboratories—both of which are
                        needed for successful science. Thus, major shifts of scientists can cause
                        reduced productivity.

                        The need to make changes in the research programs conducted by land
                        grant institutions has been reported by the National Research Council. In
                        its comprehensive 1996 report on land grant colleges of agriculture,3 the
                        Council concluded, among other things, that “the past accomplishments of
                        agricultural research conducted at the . . . colleges of agriculture provide
                        no rationale for maintaining the status quo in the face of new research
                        needs and paradigms and a rapidly changing operating environment.”

                        We believe that there is a need to make the public agricultural research
                        system more efficient. This can be achieved in several ways. First, some
                        ARS laboratories could be consolidated or closed. In our March 1996
                        report, we noted that over 60 percent of ARS’ laboratories were over 30
                        years old and that almost half had fewer than 10 scientists each.
                        Furthermore, ARS estimated that, as of fiscal year 1993, $700 million was

                          Agricultural Research: Information on Research System and USDA’s Priority Setting,
                        (GAO/RCED-96-92, Mar. 28, 1996).
                        Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities: Public Service and Public Policy. National
                        Academy Press: Washington, D.C., 1996.

                        Page 2                                                                          GAO/T-RCED-97-101
required to repair its facilities, many of which did not meet modern
building codes.

USDA recognizes the need to consolidate ARS laboratories. In its fiscal year
1996 budget request, it proposed closing 12 laboratories. However,
directives from congressional committees have limited USDA’s ability to
act. For example, regarding the 12 laboratories that USDA sought to close,
the House and Senate committees’ reports for USDA’s 1996 appropriations
directed that 9 remain open and that research conducted at the remaining
3 continue to be funded, if not at the existing laboratory, then at some
other facility.

USDA’s  Strategic Planning Task Force, established by the 1996 farm bill, has
the potential to address the issue of laboratory closings in an objective
manner. This independent, 15-member panel is charged with, among other
things, reviewing the capacities of federally owned and funded agricultural
research facilities and, within 2 years, providing a 10-year strategic plan
for closing, consolidating, modernizing, and constructing federally funded
facilities. We believe that the task force deserves the resources and
support necessary to effectively carry out its mandate.

Another way to increase efficiency is through more collaboration among
federal, state, and industry research scientists. For example, regional
centers of excellence, linking scientists from various states and federal
laboratories to work on research of regional importance, offer the
potential for more efficient use of resources through the sharing of
expertise and facilities across state lines.

Fundamental to the center-of-excellence concept is the notion that not all
institutions need to have research programs and expertise in all
specialties. Further, food and agricultural issues are not always best
examined at the state level. Many issues—such as those involving natural
resources, food safety, and nutrition—cross state boundaries. Our 1996
report on agricultural research identified several examples of
collaborative efforts among land grant universities and between land
grants and federal agencies, including ARS. USDA is a strong proponent of
such partnerships, as are many members of the research community.

Finally, Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs)
represent an important mechanism through which federal laboratories and
private industry can collaborate. In our June 1996 report on ARS research

Page 3                                                      GAO/T-RCED-97-101
                       activities,4 we reported that as of January 1996, ARS had at least 236 active
                       CRADAs covering 173 projects. The projects were valued at $114 million.
                       Our report noted that the benefits of CRADAs to ARS included improved
                       opportunities to develop and transfer technology and obtain better
                       feedback from industry on the types of research needed. However, to our
                       knowledge, there have been no comprehensive reviews on how effectively
                       ARS has implemented its CRADA program. We believe this would be an
                       opportune time to examine the program to determine the extent to which
                       the public has benefited from these arrangements.

                       Along with increased efficiency, there is a need for improved
Existing Structure     accountability for federal research expenditures. As noted in our 1996
Lacks Accountability   report on agricultural research, USDA does not comprehensively evaluate
                       the impacts of research programs. Furthermore, neither ARS nor CSREES
                       systematically assesses the relative importance of its research priorities
                       within the context of USDA’s overall research portfolio. Without such
                       assessments, there can be little assurance that research resources are
                       being allocated to the areas of greatest need. The Government
                       Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) has provided an impetus for
                       USDA to move toward an outcome-oriented strategic planning process with
                       performance goals and measures of performance. If this effort is
                       successful, it will be an important step toward greater accountability.

                       However, for GPRA to be effectively implemented, USDA will need to
                       improve its information system capabilities. USDA’s Current Research
                       Information System (CRIS), used by thousands of researchers to document
                       and inventory publicly funded agricultural research, has significant
                       limitations. For example, this system does not capture many current
                       research areas, such as biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. As a
                       result, USDA cannot accurately identify the extent of publicly funded
                       research in those areas. Moreover, the system lacks information on
                       planned research expenditures and comprehensive data on food and
                       agricultural projects supported by other federal agencies. Finally, its
                       information on research outcomes is often incomplete because land grant
                       universities and others do not systematically collect data on the outcomes
                       of their research projects.

                       USDA has several efforts under way to improve its research information
                       systems. Since fiscal year 1996, USDA has allocated about $200,000 to fund
                       a task force established to enhance CRIS’ capabilities. In addition, USDA is in

                        ARS’ Research Activities, (GAO/RCED-96-153R, June 14, 1996).

                       Page 4                                                          GAO/T-RCED-97-101
the early stages of planning for the design and development of a Research,
Education, and Economics Information System to integrate some of the
systems currently used by USDA’s research agencies, including CRIS.5 This
system is also intended to provide the expanded information capabilities
needed for reporting information required under GPRA. It is critical that
USDA take the steps necessary to ensure that this new system adequately
meets the needs of USDA’s management and the research community and
be completed in time for use in meeting GPRA requirements.

Accountability has also been hindered by several of the mechanisms USDA
uses to allocate its research funds. USDA distributes its research funds in
four basic ways: (1) to ARS for in-house research; (2) to land grant colleges
and their associated research experiment stations through a formula based
on the percentage of the nation’s rural and farm populations located in
each state and territory; (3) through a competitive grant program—known
as the National Research Initiative—open to scientists both inside and
outside of the land grant system; and (4) through a special research grants
program that includes congressionally designated (i.e., “earmarked”)
projects and projects USDA has determined to be of national or regional

The impact of these funding mechanisms is that a large proportion of
USDA-funded research—in particular, earmarked grants, formula funds, and
to some degree, in-house research—is less subject to accountability than
competitively funded research.

This is not to say that these funding mechanisms do not also have
advantages. For example, in-house research allows laboratories to
maintain long-term research efforts; and formula funds facilitate the
pursuit of long-term research goals and multidisciplinary research and
provide leverage for state and private support of agricultural research.
Further, supporters of earmarked grants maintain that such grants address
local problems that might otherwise not be addressed.

However, as noted by the National Research Council, noncompetitive
funding, by earmarked grants or formula, is inherently lacking in
accountability. With earmarked grants and formula funds, USDA has no
effective means of determining how they are used by recipients or whether
they have been devoted to activities that justify federal support. Nor is
such research automatically subject to peer review—an important part of

 In addition to CRIS, other systems being integrated into this system include USDA’s extension and
higher education information systems.

Page 5                                                                         GAO/T-RCED-97-101
           quality control in science. Similarly, the National Academy of Sciences
           noted that merit review of in-house research is more difficult because
           federal research scientists are in the civil service and still receive salaries
           even if they are not productive or if their area of expertise has become

           In fiscal year 1994, CSREES funded about $53 million in earmarked special
           grants. Similarly, as we reported in 1996,6 as of January 1996, ARS had 42
           projects, valued at $32 million, that were designated by congressional
           committees to go to organizations outside the federal government. Nearly
           all the respondents to a 1995 agricultural research survey conducted by
           the House Committee on Agriculture agreed that all of USDA’s special
           research grants should be awarded competitively—not through
           earmarking. While some congressionally designated grants may produce
           quality research, there is little accountability for such funds, and these
           grants use resources that could be directed to areas of greater priority.

           As for the proper balance among the funding mechanisms for agricultural
           research, we believe this can best be determined in the context of clearly
           stated national research goals—jointly determined by USDA and the land
           grant institutions—and strategic plans for reaching these goals.

           This concludes our statement. We would be glad to respond to your


(150721)   Page 6                                                        GAO/T-RCED-97-101
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