On February 6, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a new strategic document to steer future science activities for the Department through 2025. The USDA Science Blueprint is intended to provide direction and focus as the agencies within USDA strive for a more coordinated scientific enterprise. A primary goal of the document is the “unification of agency plans into the Department’s plans” to better centralize strategic planning at all levels of USDA. Celebrating USDA’s history of “moving science into practice,” the Blueprint seeks to enhance the development and implementation of science-driven innovations by not only aligning research priorities with nationally significant targets but also remedying “bottlenecks” in the tech transfer process. Notably, the research priorities include an explicit emphasis on sustainability and climate adaption, including resilience, pest management, zoonotic and vector-borne disease, and conservation.
In addition to the agencies in the Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area, which include the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Economic Research Service (ERS), and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Blueprint also includes activities conducted by the Forest Service, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The Blueprint prioritizes the following five themes:
- Sustainable Ag Intensification: “Develop crop production systems and alternative strategies to intensify plant and forest production with continuous improvements and adoption of new technology and innovative practices while reducing environmental impacts.”
- Ag Climate Adaptation: “Develop interdisciplinary integrative systems approaches to address environmental and management challenges that positively impact productivity and resilience.”
- Food and Nutrition Translation: “Generate fundamental knowledge and tools that may later be applied to improve food safety and food security, including One Health research such as antimicrobial resistance.”
- Value-Added Innovations: “Strengthen food, agricultural, and forest production, processing, manufacturing, utilization, and marketing through new technologies, innovation, and data analysis to create jobs and economic opportunities in rural areas.”
- Ag Science Policy Leadership: “Encourage a global conversation and facilitate such discussion within decision-making bodies about literacy in agriculture, food, forestry, health, and science.”
The Blueprint highlights several cross-cutting “movements in science and agriculture” that will be central foci of investments and coordination efforts. These movements include open data, big data, artificial intelligence, gene editing, microbiome sciences, and technology, automation, and remote sensing.
Although each thematic area in the Blueprint outlines broad objectives, strategies, and evidence-building activities for identified sub-themes, the document stops short of identifying future programmatic investments or clear actions for the agency. The Trump Administration’s recently released FY 2021 budget request for USDA REE does not explicitly reference the Blueprint, however it does propose some new funding for its themes. The Administration’s request proposes a $100 million increase for investments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive science across three NIFA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) areas: sustainable agricultural systems, foundational and applied science, and education and workforce development. Support for new investigators, plant and animal breeding, emerging advanced technologies (gene editing, robotics), climate adaptation research, climate-smart farming, agricultural biosecurity, food and agricultural microbiomes, pollinator health, and fostering interagency connections are all highlighted within the AFRI budget request, signaling the Administration’s ongoing interest in these areas moving forward.
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