September 30, 2009 / 7:30 PM / 10 years ago

USDA agricultural research ripe for overhaul: Shah

* USDA research needs tighter focus-Undersecretary

* Sees opportunity for “transformative change” in research

* Should focus on achieving breakthroughs in key areas

* Priorities include food safety, food security, climate change, biofuels, human nutrition

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON, Sept 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department could get better results from its agricultural research spending if it focused on a narrower list of priorities, the USDA’s top research official said on Wednesday.

Rajiv Shah, the USDA’s undersecretary for research, education and economics, told a Congressional hearing that “the next six months will be a time of great organizational evolution” as he reviews research conducted by USDA scientists as well as grants it gives to external research bodies.

“To do agricultural research really well, and to do it in a way that generates real benefits for people, we really believe that you have to focus for a long time on a specific, narrow set of scientific problems,” Shah told Reuters after the hearing of a U.S. House agriculture subcommittee.

Shah told the hearing he sees the chance “to bring about transformative change in the way we do science at USDA.”

The USDA spent $1.19 billion on its Agricultural Research Service in 2009, and $1.22 billion on grants to outside research facilities and projects, both of which included a long list of Congressionally directed spending “earmarks” for specific projects.

Shah, who led research at the Gates Foundation before the Obama administration named him to his USDA post, said he will use his role as “Chief Scientist” to focus resources around priority areas, seeking breakthroughs in food safety, food security, climate change, biofuels and human nutrition.

Stakeholders will help the USDA hone its research priorities, Shah said, noting the department wants to “broaden the tent” to include consumer groups in its consultations.

The USDA also will formally establish the National Institute of Food and Agriculture on Thursday, replacing the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, which helps fund external research projects.

“There are some great opportunities to change, and we believe (the new institute) will allow us to do that,” Shah said.

The institute will be led by Roger Beachy, a biologist from St. Louis, Missouri known for his pioneering research in genetically modified crops, and his work with Monsanto Co MON.N.

The USDA’s research should be done “to scale,” bringing in scientists from around the country and collaborating with other government research programs, Shah said.

“You have to be very, very focused on impact,” he told Reuters. “You have to define what the goals are going to be in two years, and five years, and 10 years, and pull the projects that aren’t on track, and reinvest in those that are on track.”

Shah told the hearing he could not comment on whether the administration would ask Congress for more money for agricultural research for its fiscal 2011 budget. (Editing by Christian Wiessner)

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