Agricultural Research:

USDA's Response to Recommendations to Strengthen the Agricultural Research Service's Programs and Facilities

RCED-00-85R: Published: Feb 15, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 17, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) task force's recommendations to strengthen the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) programs and facilities, focusing on: (1) the actions ARS has taken to close and consolidate laboratories; (2) the task force report's major recommendations designed to, among other things, improve operational efficiencies; and (3) ARS' reaction to the task force report.

GAO noted that: (1) ARS agreed with GAO's 1996 and 1997 findings that efficiencies could be gained by closing or consolidating some ARS laboratory locations; (2) at that time, ARS indicated that the agency would await the completion of the task force report before undertaking major changes in its research program; (3) since then, these officials told GAO, USDA has tried through the budget process to close or consolidate laboratories but has been unsuccessful because of pressure from Congress and other stakeholder groups; (4) for fiscal year (FY) 1996, USDA proposed closing 12 laboratories, and in FY 1998 and FY 1999, it proposed closing 4 laboratories; (5) however, Congress directed that all of these laboratories remain open; (6) the June 1999 task force report emphasized the need for ARS to increase its operational efficiencies by setting priorities for its research activities and improving collaboration between its scientists and those in universities and the private sector; (7) the task force's recommendations fall into two categories; (8) the first category includes 47 recommendations associated with 14 principles aimed at achieving broad program improvements; (9) the second category of recommendations was aimed primarily at consolidating and renovating specific laboratories; (10) ARS officials believe that they are adequately addressing the task force's recommendations through their past, ongoing, and planned efforts; (11) in contrast, task force officials stated that various groups they met with--including commodity organizations, farm groups, environmentalists, and the for-profit sector--consistently told them the system is in need of repair and the ARS efforts under way fall short of achieving the vast changes required in the system; (12) they cautioned, however, that the task force report should not be used as a justification for cutting the ARS budget because much excellent research is being conducted by individual ARS scientists; (13) rather, it should be used to redirect the process ARS uses to make facility and research decisions; (14) despite ARS' belief that they are adequately addressing the task force recommendations, ARS officials have concerns about the report; (15) with regard to the task force recommendations on specific facilities, ARS officials agreed with many of the task force recommendations; and (16) ARS stated that it had initiated a number of these recommended plans or actions independently of the task force recommendations.

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