Thursday, January 27, 2011

Insight into the State of the Union

President Obama’s State of the Union Address, Winning the Future, focused on innovation, building entrepreneurial opportunities, creating jobs, reducing the debt, investing in renewable energy, and bipartisanship. With so many different themes it takes a little time to tease out the threads related to the agronomic, crop, and soil sciences. Nonetheless, there were a couple of interesting references which provide insight into the plans of the Administration and reflect discussions that will occur in the 112th Congress.

Subjects related to agronomic, crop, and soil science:

#1. Innovation fueled by investments in science: One of most poignant statements in the address was when the President said that “because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need.” This reflects a continued commitment to capitalize on the U.S.’s public sector research and development enterprise; a commitment that began almost one and a half years prior during a speech at the National Academies. At the Academies, the President pledged to “devote more than 3 percent of (U.S.) GDP to research and development. In 2009, 3% of the US GDP would have been about $423.6 Billion. Here at the Science Policy Office, we are anxious to see what that means for agricultural, crop, and soil science funding in the President’s budget proposal that is slated to be released on February 14.

#2. Grand challenges: The ASA, CSSA, and SSSA have all responded to the request of the Office of Science and Technology by developing “grand challenges” which need to be addressed to overcome limits to food security and biofuel production and to address increased pressures on production due to climate and limited agricultural inputs. The grand challenges can be viewed here:

During his speech, President Obama announced that, “We're issuing a challenge. We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time.” This statement falls in line with the focus that we see with the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). (Please note that two of the seven RFAs for AFRI have been released.) While the pay-offs can be great, there are also trade-offs for doing big-science when there is little to no increases in annual appropriations. In other words, less remains for new projects and collaborations. To build on current investments, it is essential that we are effective and clear with all of our education and outreach efforts. The grand challenges were no doubt helpful in adjusting our focus. Now, we need to succinctly articulate the benefits our sciences can generate.

The research challenges that the President mentioned in his speech do not specifically relate to agriculture and the environment, however, he made several references to food and fuel production and environmental issues. Specifically, he stated that “with more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels.” pledging that “By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources.” These statements support Growing America’s Fuels, a strategy for developing the commercialization of a sustainable biofuels industry developed by the President’s Biofuels Inter-agency Working Group. Growing America’s Fuels has a strong crop production component to it.

Finally, the President mentioned that the U.S. is “helping farmers grow more food” around the world, a clear reference to the Administration’s initiative announced last year at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs called Feed the Future. Feed the Future is focused on scaling up U.S. Government investments and impact to accelerate progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

# 3. Education: Finally, the President emphasized education in his speech, saying that the U.S. is “home to the world's best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth.” He continued on, pledging that “over the next 10 years…we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.” Because of the sustained focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), education will continue to be a focus for ASA, CSSA, and SSSA. It is important that we participate in events like the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival. (Many thanks to all of the volunteers who came out last year!) We also need to continue to meet with key federal officials to discuss the importance of agronomic, crop, and soil science in the curriculum. The National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Education and Human Resources, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, as well as the Department of Education will all be important to speak with to understand better how will we can recruit and train the next generation of our technical workforce? With so much focus on science and technology education, now is the ideal time to determine the best way forward.

Now, these pledges and aspirations all have a rather gray backdrop—the federal deficit. President Obama mentioned several methods that his Administration will pursue to reduce the size of the deficit while also investing in areas fundamental to growth. However, there is no question that the U.S. is at a difficult crossroads. The methods that Congress and the Administration will use to reduce spending while simultaneously investing in infrastructure, research, and education are unknown. Whatever the methods are, we will focus on tying research to innovation, economic growth, and entrepreneurial opportunities during our discussions with both the Administration and Congress during the next two years.

**Please see the PCAST (posted Jan. 13) blog post about the presentations that Drs. Woteki and Beachy gave to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) on January 7 to learn more about USDA investments.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Drs. Woteki and Beachy present at PCAST and Science Policy Office submits comments.

On January 7, 2011 Drs. Catherine Woteki, Undersecretary, Research Education and Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Roger Beachy, Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA presented before PCAST. Their presentations (available here) offered a wealth of insight and data on USDA research, education, and partnerships. Before they spoke, the stakeholder community was offered the chance to comment about items they felt relevant to PCAST’s mission. Director of Science Policy, Dr. Karl Glasener spoke on behalf of ASA, CSSA, and SSSA. Dr. Glasener's comments can be viewed here. Senior Science Policy Associate, Caron Gala Bijl spoke on behalf of the AFRI Coalition (view comments here).

The comment period was inspiring; there was a wide range of groups who spoke, each with a unique perspective. As a result, there was a chorus of support for investments in the food, agricultural, and natural resource sciences. Video of the presentations by Woteki and Beachy as well as public comments in support of food and agricultural research are archived on PCAST’s Webcast site.

“The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) is an advisory group of the nation's leading scientists and engineers, appointed by the President to augment the science and technology advice available to him from inside the White House and from cabinet departments and other Federal agencies. PCAST is consulted about and provides analyses and recommendations concerning a wide range of issues where understandings from the domains of science, technology, and innovation may bear on the policy choices before the President. PCAST is administered by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).” (From PCAST Website)