USDA proposes an office of science

The Department of Agriculture has proposed a plan to streamline its research activities. The Bush administration’s proposed 2007 farm bill, unveiled by USDA Secretary Mike Johanns on Jan. 21, would merge two existing USDA research agencies into a single office of science.

Currently, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) employs some 2,100 scientists and another 6,000 support staff at 107 laboratories around the country. Nearly 500 more people—mostly administrators—make up the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), which funds research at universities and other nongovernmental facilities. The two agencies split a $2.4 billion annual research budget.

“The goal of this merger [is to] get more coordination and collaboration” in federally funded agricultural research, says Lowell Randel, USDA’s legislative-affairs director in Washington, D.C. “We currently have . . . staff within ARS and CSREES that handle research in similar areas,” such as livestock diseases, human nutrition, and plant breeding, he explains.

Randel denied that the move is intended to cut USDA research funding. “In fact, if you look at our farm bill proposal, we’re actually looking to increase the investment in research.”

For instance, Randel said, the bill would boost by $100 million per year research into what USDA terms specialty crops, such as heirloom varieties of produce. Also, an extra $50 million per year would develop new technologies for converting plants into renewable fuels.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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