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Program Synopsis: Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Competitive Grants Program

Overview

The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is charged with funding research, education, and extension grants and integrated research, extension, and education grants that address key problems of National, regional, and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of agriculture, including farm efficiency and profitability, ranching, renewable energy, forestry (both urban and agroforestry), aquaculture, rural communities and entrepreneurship, human nutrition, food safety, biotechnology, and conventional breeding. Providing this support requires that AFRI advances fundamental sciences in support of agriculture and coordinates opportunities to build on these discoveries. This will necessitate efforts in education and extension that deliver science-based knowledge to people, allowing them to make informed practical decisions.

Section 7406 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (Pub. L. 110-246) (i.e., the 2008 Farm Bill) amends subsection (b) of the Competitive, Special, and Facilities Research Grant Act (7 U.S.C. 450i(b)) to authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a new competitive grant program to provide funding for fundamental and applied research, extension, and education to address food and agricultural sciences.  AFRI supersedes the National Research Initiative. AFRI Grants shall be awarded to address priorities in United States agriculture in the following areas:

A) Plant health and production and plant products;
B) Animal health and production and animal products;
C) Food safety, nutrition, and health;
D) Renewable energy, natural resources, and environment;
E) Agriculture systems and technology; and
F) Agriculture economics and rural communities.

To the maximum extent practicable, NIFA, in coordination with the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE), will make grants for high priority research, education, and extension, taking into consideration, when available, the determinations made by the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board. The authority to carry out this program has been delegated to NIFA through the Undersecretary for REE.

The program authorizes grants for FY 2009-12, of which the Secretary may retain no more than 4 percent for administrative costs. Funds will be available for obligation for a two-year period beginning in the fiscal year for which funds are first made available. Grants will be awarded on the basis of merit, quality, and relevance and may have terms of up to 10 years.

Subject to the availability of appropriations to carry out the AFRI program, the Secretary may award grants to State agricultural experiment stations; colleges and universities; university research foundations; other research institutions and organizations; Federal agencies; national laboratories; private organizations or corporations; individuals; or any group consisting of two or more of the aforementioned entities. Please see the details in the Request for Applications.

Background

In July, 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Department of Energy (DOE) asked the National Research Council’s Board on Life Sciences to convene a committee to examine the current state of biological research in the United States and recommend how best to capitalize on recent technological and scientific advances that have allowed biologists to integrate biological research findings, collect and interpret vastly increased amounts of data, and predict the behavior of complex biological systems. The committee produced a report entitled “New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Revolution,” and a set of recommendations that recognize that the most effective leveraging of investments would come from a coordinated, interagency effort to encourage the emergence of a New Biology that would enunciate and address broad and challenging societal problems.

The New Biology is already emerging, but it is as yet poorly recognized, inadequately supported, and delivering only a fraction of its potential. The committee concludes that the most effective way to speed the emergence of the New Biology is to challenge the scientific community to discover solutions to major societal problems and outlined four broad challenges in food, environment, energy, and health that could be tackled by the New Biology.

The four challenges are:

1) Generate food plants to adapt and grow sustainably in changing environments

2) Understand and sustain ecosystem function and biodiversity in the face of rapid change

3) Expand sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels

4) Understand individual health

The committee chose to focus on these four areas of societal need because the benefits of achieving these goals would be large, progress would be assessable, and both the scientific community and the public would find such goals inspirational. Each challenge will require technological and conceptual advances that are not now at hand, across a disciplinary spectrum that is not now encompassed by the field. In the committee’s view, one of the most exciting aspects of the New Biology initiative is that success in achieving the four goals chosen here as examples will propel advances in fundamental understanding throughout the life sciences. Because biological systems have so many fundamental similarities, the same technologies and sciences developed to address these four challenges will expand the capabilities of all biologists.

USDA – NIFA Approach

The report “New Biology for the 21st Century” bolsters the case for increasing the level and effectiveness of USDA’s agricultural research, education, and extension programs. These efforts have included creating NIFA and significantly increasing funding over previous levels for its research, education, and extension programs.

AFRI is one of NIFA’s major programs through which to address critical societal issues such as those laid out in the “New Biology for the 21st Century” report. USDA leadership has integrated the six AFRI priority areas (outlined in section A) with the four challenges and the approach laid out in the “New Biology for the 21st Century Report” to identify five primary challenge areas around which to structure the AFRI program and begin to focus the Department’s investment in enabling an integrated approach to biological research, education, and extension. USDA science will support the following challenges:

1) Keep American agriculture competitive while ending world hunger

2) Improve nutrition and end child obesity

3) Improve food safety for all Americans

4) Secure America’s energy future

5) Mitigate and adapt to climate change

To address these challenges at a meaningful scale and to achieve outcomes of relevance to the societal challenges, NIFA intends to release several AFRI RFAs. They will address each of the five challenges, enable transition and refocusing of grants made previously under AFRI, and provide pre- and postdoctoral fellowship opportunities. These RFAs will solicit applications for larger awards for longer periods of time to enable greater collaboration among institutions and organizations and integration of basic and applied research with deliberate education and extension programs.

In FY 2013, AFRI will solicit projects addressing the above challenges through five separate challenge area RFAs, each addressing one of the challenges. AFRI will also support research grants in the six AFRI priority areas to continue building a foundation of knowledge critical for solving current and future societal challenges. These six foundational programs will be announced in a single, separate RFA. In addition, funding opportunities for pre- and postdoctoral fellowship grants will be offered in a single, separate RFA. NIFA may also solicit applications for AFRI funds through other announcements, including supplemental FY 2013 AFRI RFAs or in conjunction with multi-agency programs.

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