Agricultural Research: Two USDA Agencies Can Enhance Safeguards against Project Duplication and Strengthen Collaborative Planning
What GAO Found
The Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) generally focus on many of the same broad topics and rely on agency safeguards, as well as on the scientific community's professional norms, to prevent inadvertent duplication of research projects within and between the agencies. Shortcomings with certain agency safeguards, however, may increase the potential risk of project duplication within or between the two agencies. ARS and NIFA built in their own safeguards to help prevent project duplication, such as (1) panels of independent external scientists who review proposed projects and (2) agency requirements for staff to ensure that proposed work is relevant, including checking the Current Research Information System (CRIS)--USDA's primary system containing project-level information on its ongoing and completed research projects--for potentially duplicative research projects in both agencies. The agencies also rely on professional norms to safeguard against duplication, such as the peer review process used by scientific journals to limit the publication of unnecessarily duplicative research. Indeed, agency officials and stakeholders could not provide recent examples of duplication within or between the two agencies, and GAO's review of 20 randomly selected research projects did not identify duplicative projects. Nevertheless, GAO identified a few shortcomings that somewhat limit the utility of certain agency safeguards. First, information in CRIS about ARS projects was typically at least 6 months out-of-date when uploaded, which undermines CRIS's utility as a safeguard. ARS officials said that the agency now expects staff to provide ARS project information on a quarterly basis, but ARS has not issued guidance about this expectation. Second, NIFA directs staff to conduct a CRIS duplication check for projects that accounted for about two-thirds of the funding it awarded for competitive grants; as a result, about one-third of its competitive grants are not subject to this safeguard against duplication. NIFA recently convened a task force to study, among other issues, whether the directive to check CRIS should be extended to all competitive grants.
USDA's Chief Scientist facilitated high-level collaborative planning, particularly between ARS and NIFA, in recent years, but 20 USDA officials and stakeholders said that agency-level collaborative planning between ARS's and NIFA's national program leaders working in common topic areas could be more systematic to make the best use of limited agricultural research resources. Specifically, the Chief Scientist and her staff led several high-level planning efforts that brought together staff from the two agencies and generated key products, such as a plan that identified USDA's seven goals for implementing its science priorities and the agencies responsible for implementing these goals. Nevertheless, national program leaders at the two agencies generally do not, and are not required to, systematically hold joint meetings for seeking stakeholder input and for setting research priorities. Some systematic collaborative planning, however, has been jointly initiated by ARS and NIFA national program leaders, such as in the animal sciences area. By enhancing collaborative planning across national program areas, as the animal sciences area has, ARS and NIFA can take fuller advantage of their collective knowledge and expertise to help set their research priorities.
Why GAO Did This Study
The USDA's principal research agencies, ARS and NIFA, play a key role in supporting agricultural science, and questions have been raised about the extent to which the two agencies may be performing duplicative research and whether the agencies collaborate in planning research. Research duplication is the inadvertent repetition of research that does not confirm or verify conclusions from prior studies. Collaborative planning involves bringing together research agencies and stakeholders to discuss priorities and roles and responsibilities. In this context, GAO was asked to assess how these agencies ensure the efficient use of their resources for research. This report examines (1) the topics ARS and NIFA focus on and the safeguards the agencies use to prevent duplication of research projects, along with any shortcomings in those safeguards, and (2) collaborative planning ARS and NIFA engaged in and how, if at all, such planning could be enhanced. GAO reviewed USDA safeguards against duplication within and between ARS and NIFA; reviewed 20 randomly selected projects; analyzed information on collaborative planning; and interviewed officials from USDA, universities, and industry.
GAO recommends, among other things, that ARS issue guidance that project information be provided to CRIS on a quarterly basis and that ARS and NIFA enhance collaborative planning. USDA generally agreed with GAO's findings, and cited benefits for three of the four recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Agriculture||To help further reduce the risk of duplicative research within and between ARS and NIFA and to improve the agencies' collaborative planning, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics to require that ARS issue written guidance specifying that it should update its research project data in CRIS at least quarterly and ensure that this requirement is also applied to any new systems that receive these project data.||
According to ARS officials, in 2013, based on GAO's recommendation, ARS added language to its Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) directing that exports of ARS research project data be generated and sent to NIFA quarterly. Further, the SOP states the schedule of exports are the first of the month on March, June, September and December.
|Department of Agriculture||To help further reduce the risk of duplicative research within and between ARS and NIFA and to improve the agencies' collaborative planning, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics to require that NIFA issue written guidance that its national program leaders ensure that staff check all of NIFA's competitive grant awards against CRIS for potential duplication.||
NIFA's Federal Assistance Policy Guide, dated Oct. 1, 2014, states, "Overlap, whether scientific, budgetary, or commitment, is not permitted. Any overlap will be resolved by NIFA with the applicant and the PD/PI [Project Director/Principal Investigator] at the time of award. NIFA will not make awards in support of projects that are already funded." However, according to NIFA officials, as of March 2017 NIFA has not issued specific written guidance that its national program leaders ensure that staff check all of NIFA's competitive grant awards against CRIS for potential duplication.
|Department of Agriculture||To help further reduce the risk of duplicative research within and between ARS and NIFA and to improve the agencies' collaborative planning, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics to require, as USDA identifies promising systems for searching and disseminating research project information, the appropriate entity to (1) determine whether VIVO or other systems are more effective or efficient than CRIS in identifying potentially duplicative research and (2) revise guidance to reflect the best system and methods for identifying potentially duplicative research projects.||
As of March 2017, USDA has neither identified the best system for identifying potentially duplicative research nor revised its guidance to reflect the best system and methods for identifying potentially duplicative research projects.
|Department of Agriculture||To help further reduce the risk of duplicative research within and between ARS and NIFA and to improve the agencies' collaborative planning, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics to enhance ARS's and NIFA's collaborative approach across all topic areas they have in common--including holding jointly sponsored meetings with stakeholders--to help set their research priorities and help them determine their roles and responsibilities for carrying out these priorities.||
ARS and NIFA have taken actions to enhance their collaborative approach across topic areas they have in common. USDA identified more than a dozen ARS-NIFA meetings that occurred since 2014 addressing coordination of priorities in their topic areas. For example, ARS and NIFA have met to plan and update the 5-year USDA research action plan, which identifies research priorities and agency roles and responsibilities.