Thursday, 13 July 2006

Competitive Funding of Soil Science Research from USDA-CSREES: Priorities, trends, and future directions.

Nancy Cavallaro, USDA-CSREES, 2006 Glenhaven Pl, 2006 Glenhaven Pl, Silver Spring, MD 20902

USDA competitive funding for research has evolved over the last few decades from a restrictive and applied USDA Competitive Grants Program to the National Research Initiative (NRI), established in 1991, which supports a broad spectrum of research that spans from very fundamental to applied research. Because soil science within the United States tends to be strongly associated with agriculture, other agencies, particularly the National Science Foundation, tended to stay away from funding soils research. Thus USDA's NRI was a major development and expansion of competitive funding for soil science as separate from forest and agricultural productivity. This paper will briefly outline the context and history of competitively funded soil science research by USDA, principally focusing on trends and priorities over the last decade and a half, and future directions for soil science research. Within the NRI, there was no soil science program until the Soils and Soil Biology program was initiated in 1994. Prior to that, considerable soils research was funded within the Water Quality and the Forest/Rangeland/Crop Ecosystems programs for research focusing on issues of adsorption, degradation, and transport of nutrients, metals and contaminants (Water Quality), or on soil organic matter, soil fertility, and soil-root interactions (Ecosystems). Thus in 1994, the competitive research program in soils became more complete in that it covered a broader spectrum of disciplines within soils, and soil biology (especially soil microbiology) became a major focus. At the same time, the Water Quality program became the Water Resources Assessment and Protection program with less emphasis on soil-related issues. In 2005, the program title was changed to Soil Processes and the emphasis on soil biology was reduced along with a greater emphasis on soil processes and interdisciplinary research. Since 1994, the distribution of funds for applied versus basic research has diminished over time, although many projects involve some aspects of both. The impression from reading titles of funded projects is that there has been a trend away from traditional production agriculture related work versus more environmentally focused and forest system related studies. This impression is somewhat misleading, however, because environmental issues are important to the economic viability and sustainability of production agriculture. Some areas have waxed and waned over the years driven by public concern and political pressures, such as soils research related to the greenhouse gases and global/climate change, soil erosion, water quality (N and P), and heavy metals. Other topics have come into the forefront driven by scientific and technological breakthroughs or paradigm shifts, such as colloid mediated transport, surface chemistry, and microbial diversity and genomics. Funding for the NRI soils program increased slowly but steadily from 1994 (about $2.5 million) to 2001 (about $4.5 million) but has been stagnant since then and is projected to decrease to $3.5 million this year. During this period, there has been pressure to reduce the scope of the program and the number of priority areas has steadily decreased. Beginning about the same time as the peak in NRI funding for soils, soils research began to get more attention as evidenced by a special issue of Science Magazine about soils (“Soils—the Final Frontier”, June 11, 2004), and increasing funding going to soils-related research at NSF and other federal agencies. New technologies for studying soils in place and at the nano-scale were developed and are becoming more accessible, largely due to scientist initiated efforts. Developments in the use of high energy radiation sources, modeling and computing, visualization, and molecular genetics and proteomics have lead to exciting new ways to look at soil processes from the nano- to the meter-scale. At the same time, remotely sensed and ground collected spatial data are more and more available along with new software programs to analyze, visualize and model this data, creating the opportunity to understand at a more fundamental level the role soils play in large-scale environmental processes. These new developments are bringing scientists from many different disciplines to soil science, creating the potential for new, exciting and high impact developments in the science.

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