More Efficient and Accountable System Could Better Respond to New Challenges
T-RCED-97-101: Published: Mar 13, 1997. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 1997.
GAO discussed the U.S. agricultural research system, focusing on what could be done to help the system respond to the challenges faced by the agricultural sector.
GAO noted that: (1) while many agricultural research needs have changed, the structure created to meet these needs has remained essentially intact; (2) in fiscal year (FY) 1996, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) allocated over $67 million (or 9.5 percent of its appropriated research funds) to overhead costs, and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service allocated $14.7 million (or 3.6 percent of its total research budget) to overhead; (3) in addition to the associated overhead costs, the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) existing infrastructure has hindered its ability to move into new research areas that require different equipment and scientific expertise; (4) USDA recognizes the need to consolidate ARS laboratories; (5) in its FY 1996 budget request, it proposed closing 12 laboratories, however, directives from congressional committees have limited USDA's ability to act; (6) USDA's Strategic Planning Task Force, established by the 1996 farm bill, has the potential to address the issue of laboratory closings in an objective manner; (7) another way to increase efficiency is through more collaboration among federal, state, and industry research scientists; (8) finally, Cooperative Research and Development Agreements represent an important mechanism through which federal laboratories and private industry can collaborate; (9) along with increased efficiency, there is a need for improved accountability for federal research expenditures; (10) USDA has several efforts under way to improve its research information systems; (11) since FY 1996, USDA has allocated about $200,000 to fund a task force established to enhance USDA's Current Research Information System capabilities; (12) in addition, USDA is in the early stages of planning for the design and development of a Research, Education, and Economics Information System to integrate some of the systems currently used by USDA's research agencies; (13) accountability has also been hindered by several of the mechanisms USDA uses to allocate its research funds; (14) the impact of these funding mechanisms is that a large proportion of USDA-funded research, in particular, earmarked grants, formula funds, and to some degree, in-house research, is less subject to accountability than competitively funded research; and (15) nearly all the respondents to a 1995 agricultural research survey conducted by the House Committee on Agriculture agreed that all of USDA's special research grants should be awarded competitively, not through earmarking.