Oversight

USDA research efforts need management improvements: GAO

Scientist in grain field

USDA's research agencies have some GAO recommendations for improvement. (Stock image)

The United States Department of Agriculture's two principal research agencies need to strengthen collaborative planning and reduce duplication in the face of increasingly tight budgets, according to a Government Accountability Office study released in April.

The study was the culmination of a lengthy investigation into USDA's internal and external research agencies – the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), respectively – which both play critical roles in supporting agricultural science and human nutrition. The agencies collectively spend close to $1.2 billion annually. USDA economists estimate that each dollar spent on public agricultural research returns an estimated $10 in benefits to the economy, with even greater returns predicted by university researchers.

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In the past, the agencies have made use of existing safeguards on the books to avoid potentially duplicative projects, including panels of independent external scientists who review projects, professional norms like peer reviews and USDA's Current Research Information System (CRIS), a database containing project-level information about all ongoing and completed research projects.

Yet GAO found several shortcomings that limit the effectiveness of existing safeguards against duplicative efforts. Chief among them is outdated information, with information in CRIS on ARS projects typically a minimum of six months out of date, undermining the effectiveness of the database.

In addition, GAO said one-third of NIFA's competitive grants are not subject to CRIS duplication checks. NIFA does not do its own research, but gathers it by awarding grants to individuals, institutions, and organizations, through increased education to improve scientific and agricultural literacy, and through its extension networks.

Finally, GAO found that high-level collaborative planning processes could be "more systematic to make the best use of limited agricultural research resources," suggesting joint meetings between department heads on at least an annual basis.

"The nation's increasingly tight budget environment underscores the need for federal research agencies to set priorities carefully and make effective use of limited research funding," the report states. "At both ARS and NIFA, national program leaders are responsible for setting the agencies' research priorities; obtaining input from stakeholders in industry, academia, and elsewhere; and identifying gaps in agricultural research. As agency budgets continue to tighten, pressure increases on program leaders to ensure that dollars go to the highest-priority activities and that research projects are complementary, rather than unnecessarily duplicative."

Other recommendations made by GAO in the report were generally agreed to by USDA, which cited overall agency benefits for three of the four total recommendations.

GAO recommended ARS issue formal written guidance that it should update research project data "at least quarterly" to ensure new projects aren't duplications, and directed NIFA to instruct its national program leader ensure staff check the entirety of its competitive grant awards against CRIS for duplicative efforts. GAO also instructed USDA to investigate whether other systems might be more effective and efficient than CRIS and revise its internal methods for identifying duplicative research projects.

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