Feds taking turn at making cuts in research funds

Sadly, we've come to expect the very worst from most of our elected officials. Corruption, cronyism and various other unsavory traits are, for the most part, tolerated from those who are elected to protect our interests. It has become too easy for us to shrug off most of these tiresome shenanigans as “politics as usual.”

But there's one trait that we shouldn't tolerate, and that we might not survive if it's allowed to continue, and that's shortsightedness. It can be an especially damaging trait for agriculture.

In last month's column, we talked about the shortsightedness of state legislatures, particularly in Alabama, and how this is affecting public agricultural research at the land-grant universities. Agricultural research projects already have been canceled in Alabama this year, and there's talk of closings and layoffs at the state's regional Extension and research centers.

All of this is the result of state leaders who don't have the vision and courage to establish a stable source of funding for education, research and Extension. Under Alabama's current antiquated tax structure, education funding comes strictly from sales tax receipts. If the economy happens to stumble, then money is taken away from schools, colleges and universities.

And it isn't enough that agriculture has to tolerate such ineptitude from state politicians. Now the feds are taking their shots.

Land-grant universities would lose millions of dollars in earmarked research, education and Extension funds next year under President Bush's budget proposal. The president's budget proposal outline, released last month, would eliminate $150 million in such grants, which are given by Congress. The special grants are part of a $1.9 billion research budget this year.

The College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia received $1.6 million in such funding. Among this year's grants, the university received $300,000 to study the economics and profitability of the peanut industry in the South and $100,000 to look at the quality and marketing of Vidalia onions.

Bush's proposed cut targets a controversial area in the annual budget debate. While many members of Congress eagerly fund local research programs that they believe benefit their states, others say the grants are irresponsible “pork” programs that drive up government spending. Some academicians object because the money is not awarded on a completely competitive basis.

“Earmarked research is not subject to merit-based selection processes, therefore these programs do not represent the most effective use of limited federal funding and often fail to address national priorities,” Bush's budget report says.

The problem is, most “national priorities” don't take into account the problems of a south Georgia or south Alabama farmer. Such grants, which often are supplemented by private and state money, are needed to sustain agricultural research efforts that have limited funding options.

Agriculture department officials say that about 90 to 95 percent of the congressional grants — which fund about 300 projects — would disappear under the administration's proposal. They say most are low priorities in a tight budget situation.

Jerry Cherry, associate dean for research at the University of Georgia, says that while university officials plan to discuss the proposed cuts with the Georgia congressional delegation, “it would be up to them whether to restore the money.”

Losing the grants might end specific projects, but the college will continue working with peanuts and Vidalia onions, he says. “The grants are very important to our local people and our local delegation. It allows us to do something we wouldn't be able to do otherwise,” says Cherry.

The impact of losing vital research dollars, both at the state and federal levels, might not be felt immediately. But such shortsightedness eventually will be devastating to American agriculture.

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