Agricultural Research: Background and Issues
September 24, 2020
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Research, Education, and Economics
(REE) mission area funds bil ions of dollars annual y for biological, physical, and social
Genevieve K. Croft
science research that is related to agriculture, food, and natural resources. Four agencies
Analyst in Agricultural
carry out REE responsibilities: the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National
Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the National Agricultural Statistics Service

(NASS), and the Economic Research Service (ERS). The Under Secretary for REE, who
oversees the REE agencies, holds the title of USDA Chief Scientist and is responsible
for coordinating research, education, and extension activities across the entire department. The Office of the Chief
Scientist (OCS)—a staff office within the Office of the Under Secretary for REE—supports this coordination role.
Discretionary funding for the REE mission area totaled approximately $3.4 bil ion in FY2020, and mandatory
funding from the 2018 farm bil adds another $177 mil ion per year on average.
USDA administers federal funding to states and local partners through its extramural research agency: NIFA.
NIFA administers this extramural funding through capacity grants (al ocated to the states based on formulas in
statute) and competitive grants (awarded based on a peer-review process). USDA also conducts its own research
at its intramural research agencies: ARS, NASS, and ERS.
Debates over the direction of public agricultural research and the nature of how it is funded continue. Ongoing
issues include whether federal funding is sufficient to support agricultural research, education, and extension
activities; the different roles of extramural versus intramural research; and the implications of al ocating
extramural funds via capacity grants versus competitive grants.
Many groups believe that Congress should increase support of U.S. agriculture through expanded federal support
of research, education, and extension programs, whereas others believe that the private sector, not taxpayer
dollars, should be used to support these activities.
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USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area ................................................. 4
Agricultural Research Service ..................................................................................... 5
National Institute of Food and Agriculture ..................................................................... 5
National Agricultural Statistics Service ......................................................................... 6
Economic Research Service ........................................................................................ 6
Office of the Under Secretary of REE and Office of the Chief Scientist.............................. 9
Extramural Research Funding ........................................................................................... 9
Capacity Grants....................................................................................................... 10
Capacity Grants for Research ............................................................................... 10
Capacity Grants for Extension .............................................................................. 10

Competitive Grants .................................................................................................. 11
Intramural Research Funding .......................................................................................... 13
Research Funding Considerations .................................................................................... 13

Capacity Grants Versus Competitive Grants ................................................................. 13
Extramural Versus Intramural Funding ........................................................................ 15
Public Versus Private Funding ................................................................................... 16
Agricultural Research Supports Productivity ..................................................................... 19
Funding Agricultural Research: Looking Ahead ................................................................. 20

Figure 1. Overview of USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission
Area ........................................................................................................................... 4
Figure 2. USDA Agricultural Research Service Locations in the United States.......................... 7
Figure 3. Land-Grant Colleges and Universities ................................................................... 8
Figure 4. National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Budget ..................................... 12
Figure 5. Inflation-Adjusted U.S. Public and Private Agricultural Research and
Development Expenditures .......................................................................................... 17
Figure 6. Funders and Performers of U.S. Food and Agricultural Research in 2013 ................. 18
Figure 7. U.S. Agricultural Productivity: 1948-2015 ........................................................... 19

Author Information ....................................................................................................... 21

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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

he federal government funds bil ions of dollars of agricultural research annual y. The U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission
T area has the primary federal responsibility to advance scientific knowledge for
agriculture. REE programs and activities include the biological, physical, and social sciences
related broadly to agriculture, food, and natural resources.
The Under Secretary for REE, who oversees the REE agencies, holds the title of USDA Chief
Scientist and is responsible for coordinating research, education, and extension activities within
REE and across USDA. The Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS)—a staff office within the Office
of the Under Secretary for REE—supports this coordination role (7 U.S.C. §6971).
Other USDA agencies and other federal agencies also conduct research relevant to agriculture.
For example, within USDA, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service, and the U.S. Forest Service conduct some research activities. Outside
of USDA, the National Science Foundation funds fundamental and applied research relevant to
agriculture. This report focuses on USDA’s REE mission area and does not directly address
research activities or research funding outside of the mission area.
USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics
Mission Area

Figure 1. Overview of USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission
(FY2020 discretionary budget authority)

Source: Congressional Research Service (CRS), using U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and
appropriations committee information. Amounts are FY2020 budget authority. For program details, see USDA’s
Congressional Budget Justification, at
REE consists of four agencies (see Figure 1): the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National
Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Economic Research Service (ERS), and National Institute
of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Al four agencies are headquartered in the Washington, DC,
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metro area.1 Their mission area includes intramural and extramural roles in agricultural research,
statistics, extension, and higher education. Most REE activities are funded through annual
discretionary appropriations. In FY2020, the REE discretionary budget totaled approximately
$3.4 bil ion. Mandatory funding authorized in the 2018 farm bil adds approximately $177
mil ion per year on average.2
Agricultural Research Service
ARS is USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency: it employs federal scientists to
conduct research and is responsible for leading the national agricultural research effort. It
operates approximately 90 research facilities in the United States and abroad, many of which are
co-located with land-grant universities (Figure 2). ARS also operates the National Agricultural
Library located in Beltsvil e, MD, the world’s largest agricultural research library and a primary
repository for food, agriculture, and natural resource sciences information.
ARS has about 5,000 permanent employees, including approximately 2,000 research scientists.3 It
is led by an administrator, who is a member of the Senior Executive Service. ARS organizes its
research into 15 national programs to coordinate the nearly 700 research projects that ARS
scientists carry out. This research spans efficient and sustainable food and fiber production,
development of new products and uses for agricultural commodities, development of effective
pest management controls, and support of USDA regulatory and technical assistance programs.
National Institute of Food and Agriculture
NIFA is USDA’s principal extramural research agency: it leads and funds external research,
extension, and educational programs for agriculture, the environment, human health and wel -
being, and communities. NIFA leadership includes developing and implementing grant programs
that fund extramural activities. NIFA provides federal funding for projects conducted in
partnership with land-grant universities in al 50 states and several U.S. territories, affiliated State
Agricultural Experiment Stations (SAESs), schools of forestry and veterinary medicine, the
Cooperative Extension System (CES), other research and education institutions, private
organizations, and individuals.4 The land-grant university (LGU) system includes three types of
institutions: the 52 original colleges (known as the 1862 Institutions) established through the
Morril Act of 1862, the 19 historical y black colleges (known as the 1890 Institutions)
established through the Second Morril Act of 1890, and the 36 tribal colleges (known as the 1994
Institutions) that gained land-grant status in 1994 (Figure 3).5 NIFA awards federal funds through

1 National Institute of Food Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS) staff and principal operations
were moved to Kansas City in 2019; however, their administrative headquarters remain in Washington, DC.
2 Mandatory funding is not only authorized, but also actually provided via budget enforcement rules. Discretionary
may be authorized in a bill but is not actually provided until provided through annual appropriations bills. For
more information, see “T ypes of Spending Authorizations” in CRS Report R45425, Budget Issues That Shaped the
2018 Farm Bill
3 More than 200 scientists are located at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) headquarters in Beltsville, MD. For
more information, see ARS, “ About ARS,” at -ars.
4 T he Cooperative Extension System (CES) is a nationwide, noncredit educational network. Each U.S. state and
territory has an office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices. T he purpose of CES is to
deliver knowledge gained through research and education directly to farmers and other residents for practical use.
5 See CRS Report R45897, The U.S. Land-Grant University System: An Overview.
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

capacity grants—distributed to the states based on formulas in statute—and competitive grants
awarded to eligible applicants following a peer-review process.
NIFA is authorized to have 412 permanent full-time employees.6 Its headquarters are located in
Washington, DC, and most NIFA staff positions are located in Kansas City, MO.7 It is led by a
director, who is appointed by the President to serve a six-year term.8 NIFA organizes its programs
into four institutes led by deputy directors. National program leaders within the institutes manage
NIFA programs in partnership with LGUs and other stakeholders.
National Agricultural Statistics Service
NASS conducts the five-yearly Census of Agriculture, and it provides official statistics on
agricultural production and indicators of the status of the farm sector. NASS is one of the 13
principal statistical agencies of the Federal Statistical System of the United States.9 NASS
headquarters are in Washington, DC, and it has offices in 45 states and Puerto Rico. The NASS
workforce consists of about 1,000 full-time employees and is led by an administrator, who is a
member of the Senior Executive Service.
Economic Research Service
ERS supports economic and social science analysis about agriculture, rural development, food,
commodity markets, and the environment. It also collects and disseminates data concerning
USDA programs and policies. Like NASS, ERS is one of the 13 principal statistical agencies of
the Federal Statistical System of the United States. ERS headquarters are located in Washington,
DC, and the majority of ERS staff positions are located in Kansas City, MO.10 In recent years, it
has been authorized to have about 330 full-time employees.11 ERS is led by an administrator, who
is a member of the Senior Executive Service.

6 USDA, “ Explanatory Notes—National Institute of Food and Agriculture,” President’s Budget Request—FY2021,
2020, p. 19-5.
7 USDA relocated most NIFA staff positions to Kansas City, MO, from Washington, DC, in October 2019. For further
information, see CRS In Focus IF11527, Relocation of the USDA Research Agencies: NIFA and ERS .
8 T he 2008 farm bill required that the NIFA director be a distinguished scientist appointed by the President (7 U.S.C.
§6971(f)(3)(A)). This appointment does not require Senate confirmation. In contrast, the administrators of the other
Research, Education, and Economic (REE) mission area agencies are career civil servants in the Senior Executive
Service (SES). For information on the SES, see CRS Report R45635, Categories of Federal Civil Service Em ploym ent:
A Snapshot
9 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical
, 2017, p. 20.
10 USDA relocated most ERS staff positions to Kansas City, MO, from Washington, DC, in October 2019. For further
information, see CRS In Focus IF11527, Relocation of the USDA Research Agencies: NIFA and ERS .
11 For example, ERS was authorized to have 329 full-time employees in FY2020 and 330 in FY2019. See USDA,
“Explanatory Notes—Economic Research Service,” President’s Budget Request—FY2021, 2020.
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Figure 2. USDA Agricultural Research Service Locations in the United States

Source: USDA, Agricultural Research Service (ARS), “Find a Location,” at


Figure 3. Land-Grant Colleges and Universities

Source: USDA, National Institute of Food Agriculture (NIFA), “Land-Grant Col eges and Universities Map,” at

link to page 12 Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

Office of the Under Secretary of REE and Office of the Chief
The Office of the Under Secretary of REE reports to the Secretary of Agriculture. This
administrative office consists of the Under Secretary for REE and a few staff members.
OCS is a component of the Office of the Under Secretary of REE. In 2008, Congress created
OCS when it established the dual role of the Under Secretary for REE as the USDA Chief
Scientist (7 U.S.C. §6971(c)). OCS supports the USDA Chief Scientist in coordinating USDA
research programs, setting priorities, and aligning scientific capacity across the four REE
agencies and the department. Congress identified six OCS divisions to be led by division chiefs:
 Renewable energy, natural resources, and environment;
 Food safety, nutrition, and health;
 Plant health and production;
 Animal health and production;
 Agricultural systems and technology; and
 Agricultural economics and rural communities.
The division chiefs (in practice, known as senior advisors) hold their roles for a period of time
and may be appointed by means of a flexible hiring authority, including term, temporary, or other
appointment; detail; reassignment from another civil service position; and assignment from the
states under the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA, 7 U.S.C. §3374).12 Other OCS staff, who
may be hired on a permanent basis, implement additional OCS leadership duties described in
statute (7 U.S.C. §6971(e)(4)). In recent years, these positions have included the OCS director
and deputy director, the departmental scientific integrity officer, the veterinary science policy
officer, and the senior advisor for international affairs.
Since its establishment, OCS has not received an independent appropriation. Rather, the four REE
agencies have funded it via interagency agreement. The FY2021 President’s budget request for
the Office of the Secretary includes the first separate request for OCS, in the amount of $6 mil ion
and 29 staff years.13
Extramural Research Funding
Extramural research that NIFA sponsors is administered by a relatively smal cadre of employees
who are funded by a smal portion of NIFA’s appropriation for salaries and expenses. The vast
majority of the NIFA appropriation is available for extramural research grants that are made
primarily through two types of funding: capacity grants and competitive grants (see Figure 4).
The following sections introduce some USDA extramural funding concepts. For more detailed
information on federal funding of the LGU system, see CRS Report R45897, The U.S. Land-
Grant University System: An Overview.

12 7 U.S.C. §6971(E)(3)(a).
13 USDA, “ Explanatory Notes—Office of the Secretary,” President’s Budget Request—FY2021, 2020, pp. 1-9 to 1-10.
T he House-passed FY2021 Agriculture appropriation s bill (H.R. 7608, Div. B) did not include the funding requested
for the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS). As of September 2020, the Senate has not yet marked up its FY2021 bill.
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

Capacity Grants
Capacity grants for research, education, and extension are distributed to land-grant colleges
(1862, 1890, and 1994 Institutions), schools of forestry, and schools of veterinary medicine using
formulas that are set in statute. The amounts provided to each institution are determined by
census-based statistics that change infrequently. Each recipient institution determines the research
priorities for the capacity funds it receives. Two accounts provide most of the capacity grant
funding: Hatch Act funding and Smith-Lever funding.14
Capacity Grants for Research
The Hatch Act of 1887 (7 U.S.C. §301) authorizes research funding at the state agricultural
experiment stations (SAESs) associated with the 1862 Institutions. In 1955, Congress amended
the Hatch Act to distribute the appropriation according to a formula based on each state’s farm
and rural population. The Hatch Act requires one-to-one nonfederal matching funds, general y
provided from state budgets, and it requires each state to use 25% of Hatch Act funds to support
multistate or regional research. The 1890 Institutions get similar funding through Evans-Al en
Act research funding (7 U.S.C. §3222). These grants also require one-to-one nonfederal matching
funds. Unlike the Hatch Act, the Evans-Al en Act al ows states to apply for a waiver for up to
50% of the matching requirement.15
Additional capacity grant programs support forestry, veterinary, and other research at land-grant
institutions. Similar to the Hatch Act and Evans-Al en Act, these funds are distributed among
states with eligible institutions according to formulas in statute. These criteria are specific to each
program. Further, interest from the Tribal College Endowment Fund (7 U.S.C. §301 note) is
distributed to eligible institutions according to formulas in statute. The Hispanic-Serving
Agricultural Colleges and Universities Fund (7 U.S.C. §3243), designed in a similar way, has yet
to be funded by Congress.
Capacity Grants for Extension
The Smith-Lever Act (7 U.S.C. §341) authorizes cooperative extension funding to the states using
statutory formulas and requiring nonfederal matching funds. Smith-Lever Act funds support state
participation in the Cooperative Extension System through the 1862 Institutions.16 The 1890
Institutions get similar extension funding through Section 1444 funding (7 U.S.C. 321-329), with
distribution based on a formula in statute, and a nonfederal matching funds requirement.17

14 Additional details are available in the USDA Budget Summary and Explanatory Notes for NIFA, available at
15 While granting a waiver may allow federal funding to continue to flow to a historically Black college or university
(HBCU) if a state does not meet the matching requirement, such waivers reduce the resources available to these
historically Black institutions. See Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Land-Grant But Unequal: State
of One-to-One Match Funding for 1890 Land-Grant Universities
, September 2013, at
grant -but-unequal-state-one-to-one-match-funding-for-1890-land-grant-universities/file.
16 NIFA, “Cooperative Extension System,” at
17 Section 1444 refers to Section 1444 of the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and T eaching Policy Act of
1977 (T itle XIV of P.L. 95-113), which established these grants.
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Competitive Grants
NIFA awards competitive grants using a peer-reviewed merit selection process. It makes awards
to fund fundamental and applied research, extension, and higher education activities, as wel as
projects that integrate these activities. Competitive programs are designed to enable USDA to
attract a wide pool of applicants to work on agricultural issues of national or regional interest and
to select the best quality proposals submitted by highly qualified individuals, institutions, or
organizations (7 U.S.C. §450i(b)). Competitive grants are primarily funded with discretionary
appropriations, but some also receive mandatory funding from the farm bil (Figure 4). The many
NIFA competitive grant programs focus on aspects of agricultural research, extension, and
The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is NIFA’s flagship competitive grants
program. It funds basic and applied research, education, and extension to colleges and
universities, agricultural experiment stations, and other organizations conducting research in
priority areas that are established partial y in the farm bil . The 2008 farm bil (P.L. 110-246)
mandated that AFRI al ocate 60% of grant funds for basic research and 40% for applied
research.19 Further, at least 30% of total funds must be used to integrate research with education
and/or extension activities.20

18 For a listing of NIFA’s competitive grants, see NIFA, “RFA List,” at
19 7 U.S.C. §3157(b)(5).
20 7 U.S.C. §3157(b)(11)(A)(i).
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

Figure 4. National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Budget
(FY2020 budget authority)

Source: CRS, based on USDA FY2021 Budget Request, NIFA Congressional Justification.
Notes: *Total NIFA discretionary funds include funds appropriated directly to NIFA and via General Provisions
in annual appropriations legislation. These total funds include $28 mil ion in administrative funds not reflected in
program totals and $17 mil ion in General Provisions funding. **Mandatory funds presented do not include the
Extension Risk Management Education Program—a USDA Risk Management Agency program administered by
NIFA. Nor does it include Scholarships for Students at 1890 Institutions or Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging
Agricultural Production, which received mandatory funds for a single year, to be available until expended. Renew.
Res. Extension=Renewable Resources Extension Act Capacity Grant; Specialty Crop (SCRI)=Specialty Crop
Research Initiative; Emergency Citrus=Emergency Citrus Disease Research & Extension Initiative;
EFNEP=Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program; Organic (OREI)=Organic Agriculture Research and
Education Initiative; Beginning Farmer=Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

Intramural Research Funding
About 55% of annual discretionary funding that Congress appropriates for REE is for the
intramural research agencies that conduct federal research: ARS, ERS, and NASS.21 Decisions
about how to spend these funds are made in accordance with congressional direction and include
decisionmaking at the department, mission area, and individual agency levels. The USDA Science
, released in 2020, presents a five-year vision for USDA science, including the REE
agencies and science units of other USDA agencies outside of REE.22 The multiyear strategic
plans that individual agencies develop and publish provide an introduction to their research and
agency operations. These plans identify goals, objectives, and performance measures for research
and agency operations. In recent years, these plans include the ARS 2018-2020 Strategic Plan,23
the ERS Strategic Plan: FY2013-2018,24 and the NASS Strategic Plan: FY2020-2025.25
Research Funding Considerations
Changing environmental, economic, and social conditions affecting our food system constantly
chal enge its ability to deliver abundant, high-quality, and safe foods to consumers. Agricultural
research is designed to address questions of importance to consumers, farmers, ranchers, and
other participants in the broader food system (e.g., food processors, exporters, manufacturers of
farm machinery).
The way that the federal government funds agricultural research can influence who conducts
research, where they conduct it, and what issues they address. Furthermore, the federal
government is not the only funder of agricultural research. Research investments of the states, the
U.S. private sector, and other countries also contribute to scientific discoveries. Collectively,
these investments affect our ability to address food system chal enges in the United States and the
competitiveness of U.S. agriculture in a global context. How much and the type of funding the
federal government provides can shape the U.S. agricultural research enterprise. Congress may
choose to consider the amount of agricultural research funding it provides and the balance of
funding among available options (e.g., capacity vs. competitive grants, intramural vs. extramural
Capacity Grants Versus Competitive Grants
A topic of ongoing debate among policymakers and stakeholders is the balance of capacity grant
funding of the LGU system versus competitive grant funding available to land-grant and other
institutions and individuals. Those wanting to focus on agricultural research efficiency in the
context of limited federal resources often cal for more competitive grants. In contrast, those more
concerned with sustained funding for institutions and a broad geographic distribution of research
funding often prefer capacity grants.

21 In FY2020, the intramural agencies received about $1.9 billion of the total $3.4 billion appropriated for REE.
22 USDA, Science Blueprint: A Roadmap for USDA Science from 2020 -2025, 2020, at
23 ARS, 2018-2020 Strategic Plan, at
24 ERS, Strategic Plan: FY2013-2018, at
25 NASS, Strategic Plan: FY2020-2025, at
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

The current balance of USDA capacity and competitive grants has evolved over time. In 1972, the
vast majority of USDA-funded extramural research was conducted at LGUs using capacity funds,
compared with about 53% today. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published an
influential report that year, arguing that the agricultural research of the prior several decades had
become overly focused on applied research rather than cutting-edge basic research.26 The report
recommended shifting to more competitive funding, with the primary goals of increasing the
scientific merit of federal y funded agricultural research and increasing the flow of ideas between
researchers and USDA. Congress authorized a competitive research grants program in the 1977
farm bil and authorized annual appropriations to increase annual y, from $25 mil ion in FY1978
to $50 mil ion in FY1982 (P.L. 95-113, §1414). Enacted annual appropriations for this
competitive grants program reached about $40 mil ion in FY1989.
Following a series of advisory reports, Congress established NIFA in the 2008 farm bil (P.L. 110-
246, §7511) as a newly reorganized agency to manage USDA’s extramural programs. A 2000
NAS report examined the efficacy of the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants
Program (NRI)—at the time, USDA’s flagship competitive grants program.27 USDA’s
Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) administered NRI and
al of USDA’s competitive and capacity grant programs. Among the NAS report’s
recommendations was the creation of a new agency that would be solely responsible for
administering USDA’s competitive grants programs. A second report—released by a USDA task
force in 2004—reiterated this recommendation. In the 2002 farm bil , Congress required USDA
to convene a task force to “evaluate the merits of establishing one or more National Institutes
focused on disciplines important to the progress of food and agricultural science.”28 This task
force’s report advocated for establishing a new USDA grant-making agency modeled on the
National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.29 The report expressed that
this agency should accomplish its mission primarily through administering competitive grants to
support high-caliber, fundamental agricultural research.
In recent years, the debate over the optimal balance of competitive versus capacity-funded
research has continued. In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology
(PCAST) recommended a continued focus on increasing the proportion of research funds
awarded competitively, for both extramural and intramural research.30
Some view the choice of funding mechanism as important because it can influence who conducts
the research, where it takes place, and what type of research is performed. On the one hand, some
believe that the competitive, peer-reviewed process is advantageous because it draws on a wider
pool of eligible candidates (e.g., grant recipients are not limited to land-grant institutions or

26 National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Report of the Committee on Research Advisory to the U.S. Department of
(Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1972).
27 NAS, National Research Initiative: A Vital Competitive Grants Program in Food, Fiber, and Na tural-Resources
(Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000), at
28 P.L. 107-171, §7404. T he task force was also required to review ARS.
29 USDA, Research, Education, and Economics T ask Force, National Institute for Food and Agriculture: A Proposal,
July 2004, at
30 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and T echnology (PCAST ), Report to the President on Agricultural
Preparedness and the Agriculture Research Enterprise
, December 2012, at
sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast_agriculture_20121207.pdf. PCAST is an advisory board composed of
individuals and representatives from sectors outside the federal government with diverse perspectives and expertise that
advises the President on science, technology, education, and innovation policy. For more information on PCAST , see
CRS Report R43935, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP): History and Overview.
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SAESs) and can engage the “best and brightest minds” in addressing chal enges facing the
agriculture sector, irrespective of their home institutions.
At the same time, others argue that capacity grants provide stable funding to institutions and
al ow for long-term research and planning that can yield needed agricultural insights.31 Census-
based formulas and nearly constant appropriations have meant that states receive a predictable
al ocation every year. Although federal capacity grants may provide a fraction of the total funding
for the SAESs, SAESs traditional y use them to support staff salaries and the core ongoing
research programs that underpin academic programs at many universities (Figure 6).32
Studies comparing capacity and competitive grants have shown that competitive grants tend to
favor basic research, reach more nonland grant universities, and be concentrated among fewer
states.33 General y, states with large agricultural production and top-ranked academic programs in
biology and agricultural sciences are more competitive and receive larger shares of competitively
al ocated federal grants.
Other studies have indicated that federal capacity funding has a larger positive impact on
agricultural productivity over the long-term than federal competitive grants.34 These studies assert
that the steady funding that capacity grants provide support core and foundational research and
facilitate high-risk and long-term projects of national importance. They also assert that research
addressing multidisciplinary problems and local, state, and regional concerns is typical y
underfunded in a national competitive-grant process. Many consider that such research areas are
of critical concern and that research addressing them may yield a large net social payoff to the
agricultural sector.
Extramural Versus Intramural Funding
Another consequential policy consideration is the balance of USDA extramural vs. intramural
research funding. In recent years, approximately 45% percent of funds appropriated for the REE
agencies has gone to NIFA, USDA’s extramural funding agency. About 47% of the total has gone
to ARS, USDA’s principal in-house scientific research agency.
Many believe that intramural research at ARS al ows the federal government to fil an important
niche that is not met by industry or other institutions. Specifical y, they believe that intramural
research is best to address research problems of national and long-term priority. Such topics
include adaptation to climate change and extreme weather events; conservation and improvement
of plant and animal genetic resources; research and vaccine development for foreign animal
diseases; and soil and water resource management. Addressing some of these topics, ARS

31 For a NIFA-commissioned external evaluation of NIFA capacity funding, see S. T ripp et al., Quantitative and
Qualitative Review of NIFA Capacity Funding
, T EConomy Partners, LLC, March 2017, at
32 See Donald A. Holt, “Agricultural Research Management in US Land-Grant Universities – T he State Agricultural
Experiment Station System,” in Gad Loebenstein and George T hottappilly (eds), Agricultural Research Management,
2007, Springer, Dordrecht.
33 Kelly Day Rubenstein et al., “Competitive Grants and the Funding of Agricultural Research in the United States,”
Applied Econom ic Perspectives and Policy, vol. 25, no. 2 (2003), pp. 352-368.
34 See Wallace E. Huffman et al., “ Winners and Losers: Formula versus Competitive Funding of Agricultural
Research,” Choices, vol. 21, no. 4 (2006); and Wallace E. Huffman and Robert E. Evenson, “ Do Formula or
Competitive Grant Funds Have Greater Impact on State Agricultural Productivity,” Am erican Journal of Agricultural
Econom ics
, vol. 88, no. 4 (November 1, 2006), pp. 783-798.
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link to page 17 link to page 17 Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

manages the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network (LTAR)35 and national collections of
plant, animal, microbial germplasm (i.e., genetic resources).36 ARS is to also manage the National
Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF).37
On the other hand, some believe that ARS scientists have an unfair competitive advantage over
other agricultural scientists who do not have an endowed source of support like the federal budget
for core research expenditures. The intramural statistical and social science agencies—NASS and
ERS—may not raise the same concerns, with their more limited budgets, staffing, and scopes.
Public Versus Private Funding
A recurring policy issue is whether the federal government is providing sufficient funding for
agricultural research. A related concern is the role of publicly funded research within the context
of al agricultural research performed with public and private funding.
Public funding for agricultural research—including funding from USDA, other federal agencies,
and the states—has changed over time. It grew steadily from the 1950s to the late 1970s, when
adjusted for inflation, and then remained relatively constant into the 1980s (Figure 5). Public
funding rose from 1998 through 2001, at a time of budget surplus. In the wake of the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, supplemental funding for anti-terrorism activities added to federal
funding of agricultural research in FY2002 (P.L. 107-117) and FY2003 (P.L. 108-11), although
total public funding declined from previous years.38 Overal public funding of agricultural
research declined each year from 2002 to 2014, with the steepest declines from 2009 to 2010 and
from 2012 to 2013, as Congress eliminated earmarks and cut federal spending through budget
sequestration and other means.39 As a result of a relatively flat or declining USDA research
budget, funding from other federal agencies, such as NIH and NSF, has accounted for an
increasing portion of federal support for agricultural research.
Research and development funds from private industry for agricultural research and food have
grown since the 1970s, more than doubling between 2003 and 2014 (Figure 5). This funding
includes investments in public-private partnerships that facilitate technology transfer and at the
same time help to supplement federal and state research support. Over the long term, private-
sector spending on agricultural research has continued to grow, while public spending has
stagnated or declined in constant dollars.

35 ARS, “T he LT AR Network,” at
36 ARS, “Genetic Resource Collections,” at
37 USDA, “National Bio and Agro-defense Facility,” at
38 P.L. 107-117 transferred funds from the Emergency Response Fund created in 2001 (P.L. 107-38) to various
agencies, including USDA, in FY2002.
39 Universities reported that sequestration negatively impacted their research, due to widespread delays and reduced
activities. See Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and T he
Science Coalition, Survey on Sequestration Effects—Selected Results from Private and Public Research Universities,
November 11, 2013, at
public-research-universities. Earmarks (congressionally directed spending) also were a common means of targeting
agricultural research appropriations to specific universities or projects (see “ Earmarks” in CRS Report R40721,
Agriculture and Related Agencies: FY2010 Appropriations). Congressional Rules eliminated these after FY2010.
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

Figure 5. Inflation-Adjusted U.S. Public and Private Agricultural Research and
Development Expenditures
1970-2014, in 2013 constant US$ (bil ions)

Source: CRS, from data provided at Economic Research Service (ERS), “Agricultural Research Funding in the
Public and Private Sectors,” accessed June 5, 2020, at
Notes: ERS notes these data derive from the National Science Foundation, USDA’s Current Research
Information Systems, and various private sector data sources. Data are adjusted for inflation using an index for
agricultural research spending developed by ERS. Data as of February 2019.
A chief concern some have about privately funded research is the extent to which novel research
discoveries are shared. Another common concern is whether private funders would choose to
fully develop research discoveries with the potential for large social benefits, but limited near-
term profit potential.
Figure 6 shows the many funders of agricultural research, the scale of their contributions, and the
destinations for that funding, using 2013 data. In 2013, of the $16.3 bil ion of agricultural
research funding, about 76% came from nongovernmental sources ($12.4 bil ion) and about 72%
of the research and development performed with these funds was performed by industry ($11.8
bil ion). State governments passed through $1.1 bil ion to LGUs and SAESs.40 The LGUs and
SAESs received about 42% of their funding ($1.3 bil ion) from federal sources, including USDA,
NSF, and NIH.41 USDA intramural research by ARS, ERS, and NASS accounted for about 9% of
total agricultural research spending in 2013.

40 T his is less than the $1.4 billion they provided in 2009.
41 T his accounting is for the research function only and excludes funding for extension and education.
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

Figure 6. Funders and Performers of U.S. Food and Agricultural Research in 2013
(dol ars in mil ions)

Source: CRS, from Matthew Clancy, Keith Fuglie, and Paul Heisey, “U.S. Agricultural R&D in an Era of Fal ing
Public Funding,” Amber Waves, November 10, 2016, at
us-agricultural-rd-in-an-era-of-fal ing-public-funding.
Notes: Funding data are for calendar year 2013. Includes research and development funding only; it does not
include extension or education funding.
1. This category includes the 1862 and 1890 land-grant universities (LGUs) and State Agricultural Experiment
Stations (SAESs); veterinary schools, forestry schools, and other U.S. col eges and universities receiving
agricultural research funding from USDA. Data are based on 2013 state-level reporting (state reporting
standards changed in 2010).
2. This amount ($682 mil ion) consists of research grants and contracts from private companies; research
grants from farm commodity groups, philanthropic foundations, individuals and other organizations; and
revenue and fees from the sale of products, services, and technology licenses.
Some observers are concerned that both the increase in non-USDA public funding (e.g., NSF,
NIH) and the increase in private funding might cause the focus of agricultural research to shift
away from what some have traditional y considered the U.S. agricultural sector’s highest
priorities and needs.42 They assert that such a shift could hamper the nation’s ability to remain at
the cutting-edge with regard to new innovations; to be competitive in a global market; and to cope
with long-term chal enges such as pest and disease outbreaks, climate change, and natural
resource management. Some observers are also concerned about the decline in state funding of
agricultural research. This decline has contributed to the overal decline in the share of public
funding of U.S. agricultural research.43

42 For an analysis of the different roles of public and private agricultural research, see John King, Andrew T oole, and
Keith Fuglie, The Com plem entary Roles of the Public and Private Sectors in U.S. Agricultural Research and
Developm ent
, ERS, Economic Brief (EB) 19, September 2012.
43 See Matthew Clancy, Keith Fuglie, and Paul Heisey, “U.S. Agricultural R&D in an Era of Falling Public Funding,”
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

Irrespective of the amount of agricultural research funding, some analysts have noted that
USDA’s increased engagement with the private sector on research and technology transfer since
the 1980s may fuel innovation and reduce redundancies.44
Agricultural Research Supports Productivity
Public investment in agricultural research has been linked to productivity gains and economic
growth.45 Studies have consistently reported high social rates of return on public agricultural
research investments—on the order of 20%-60%.46 The rate of return may depend on the type of
research conducted (basic vs. applied), the duration of the research investment, and the specific
topic under study.
Figure 7. U.S. Agricultural Productivity: 1948-2015

Source: Sun Ling Wang et al., Agricultural Productivity Growth in the United States: Measurement, Trends, and Drivers,
ERR-189, Economic Research Service, July 2015.
Notes: Data are expressed with an index that is calculated relative to the data in 1982, where data in 1982 are
set to equal 100. As shown, from 1948 to 2015, U.S. agricultural productivity continued to grow, while the real
price of agricultural outputs tended to decline.

Am ber Waves, November 10, 2016, at
44 Keith O. Fuglie and Andrew A. T oole, “T he Evolving Institutional Structure of Public and Private Agricultural
Research,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics, vol. 96, no. 3 (January 20, 2014) pp. 862-883.
45 Keith O. Fuglie and Paul W. Heisey, Economic Returns to Public Agricultural Research, ERS, EB-10, September
2007, at
46 Social rates of return compare the benefits (including economic benefits and gains to consumers and society at large)
to public costs. Matthew Clancy, Keith Fuglie, and Paul Heisey, “ U.S. Agricultural R&D in an Era of Falling Public
Funding,” Am ber Waves, November 10, 2016, at
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Agricultural economists assert that advances in agricultural research and extension were critical
to the huge productivity gains in the United States after World War II.47 Total factor productivity
(TFP) is a key measure for overal agricultural productivity; it measures outputs (e.g., crop yields,
labor productivity) per total unit of inputs (e.g., land, labor, fertilizers). ERS has estimated TFP of
U.S. agriculture has increased an average of 1.38% annual y from 1948 through 2015, c ompared
to 0.1% annual growth of total inputs (Figure 7).48
Advances in basic and applied agricultural sciences—such as disease-resistant crop varieties,
efficient irrigation practices, and improved marketing systems—are widely considered
fundamental to increasing agricultural yields, farm sector profitability, competitiveness in
international agricultural trade, and improvements in nutrition and human health.
Funding Agricultural Research: Looking Ahead
In a constrained budget environment, agriculture competes for federal funding against other
federal priorities. Within the funding al ocated for agriculture, agricultural research competes for
funding against other agricultural programs, such as conservation, farm income and risk
management programs, food safety inspection, rural development, and domestic and foreign food
aid programs.49 Historical y, Congress has not solely prioritized funding for agricultural research,
education, and extension activities but has also prioritized funding for programs designed to
provide more immediate benefits to farmers, such as income support and crop insurance.
Stakeholders have varying perspectives on the needs for federal investments in agricultural
research. Some want more public spending on agricultural research to maintain U.S.
competitiveness and to increase agricultural productivity and innovation in the face of growing
food demand and increasing agricultural chal enges (e.g., pests, natural disasters).50 Some argue
that the stagnant growth in inflation-adjusted USDA funding for agricultural research, education,
and extension over the past few decades has hindered the ability of the U.S. agricultural sector to
stay productive and competitive.51
New innovations and technologies related to production, processing, marketing, and natural
resource management are widely acknowledged as essential for continued productivity gains and
economic growth of the sector. Some argue that agriculture has not achieved the same priority
level with policymakers as other sectors, such as health, and that U.S. agriculture wil suffer over
the long term because of a lack of new innovations. These critics argue that the lack of public
investment in new agricultural innovations wil have dire consequences in the future, especial y
given new and varied chal enges, such as rising production costs; new pest and disease outbreaks;
increasing frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods; and climate change.

47 Sun Ling Wang et al., Agricultural Productivity Growth in the United States: Measurement, Trends, and Drivers,
ERS, Economic Research Report (ERR) 189, July 2015 , at
48 Sun Ling Wang et al., ERR-189, 2015.
49 See CRS Report R46437, Agriculture and Related Agencies: FY2021 Appropriations.
50 For example, see Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation and Iowa State University, A Unifying Message:
Pulling Together: Increasing Support for Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Research
, 2018, at A Unifying Message Pulling T ogether June 2018.pdf; Supporters of
Agricultural Research Foundation, “Why Support Ag Research,” at
ag-research; and ERS, Public Agriculture Research Spending and Future U.S. Agricultural Productivity Growth:
Scenarios for 2010-2050
, EB-17, 2011, at
51 See footnote 50.
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

In a step toward increasing innovation for agricultural research, the 2018 farm bil authorized a
new Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA) pilot program (P.L.
115-334, §7132) at USDA to carry out innovative research and to develop and deploy advanced
solutions to agricultural threats.52 As of September 2020, this pilot program has not received
In contrast to those cal ing for increased funding, some stakeholders argue that the federal
government should have a limited role in funding agricultural research and that taxpayer dollars
should not be used to support what they believe should be a private sector endeavor. Others
believe that the states and the private sector should fil the research funding gap left by the federal
At the same time, while private sector funding has increased over time, some have expressed
concerns that private sector funding focuses primarily on bringing existing technologies to market
(i.e., more applied research) and does not focus on basic research to address chal enges that the
agricultural sector may face in the future, such as environmental sustainability or adaptation to
climate change.
Final y, some advocates have argued that some of USDA’s research portfolio duplicates private
sector activities on major crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton.53 They argue that
funding should be real ocated to basic, noncommercial research to benefit the public good that is
not addressed through private efforts. Others point out that the major crops are economical y
important to the food, feed, and energy sectors and should continue to receive significant amounts
of public funding, especial y for emerging threats such as new pests and pathogens, limited water
availability, and impacts of agriculture on human and environmental health.

Author Information

Genevieve K. Croft

Analyst in Agricultural Policy

52 See CRS In Focus IF11319, 2018 Farm Bill Primer: Agricultural Research and Extension.
53 PCAST , Report to the President on Agricultural Preparedness and the Agriculture Research Enterprise , December
2012, at
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Agricultural Research: Background and Issues

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