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Highlighting NIFA’s 2020 Successes

Nifa Author
Parag R. Chitnis, Associate Director for Programs; Acting Associate Director for Operations

This week marks a pivotal point in our nation’s fight against a pandemic. It also exemplifies how science helped mankind’s triumph over a virus.

In their recent book, “Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream,” two economists, Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson, argue that “almost every major innovation in this (post world-war II) era relied in an important way on federal government support.” These include internet, microwaves, and almost every component of the computers we use.

Coronavirus vaccine is no exception. The rapid development of vaccines against COVID-19 was possible because of long-standing federal investments in basic and applied research on viruses and biomedical sciences. These investments, combined with the ingenuity of entrepreneurial private sector, helped rapid development and commercialization.

For addressing major challenges in food and agriculture in the face of existential threats, such as environmental change at its tipping point, substantial investments in agricultural sciences are warranted. As we near the end of this most unusual year, I want to share with you some outstanding USDA-NIFA accomplishments for 2020. They exemplify how investing in agricultural research, extension and education have addressed current needs with speed, clarity and agility and explored transformative opportunities for the future with focus and scale needed.

COVID Rapid Response

In the face of a global pandemic, USDA-NIFA awarded over $24 million in grants for universities, colleges, small business, technical schools and youth development programs, including 4-H, to spur rapid response innovation addressing needs of food and agricultural sector during pandemic. We have been impressed with the outstanding projects and programs developed with this funding. In addition, the unprecedented response and impact of Cooperative Extension’s nationwide, grassroots efforts have demonstrated the agility of capacity funding in the nation’s land-grant universities.  

Support for 1890s, HSI, Tribal Colleges, small and mid-size colleges, and new investigators

To support minority-serving colleges and universities, NIFA awarded grants, scholarships, and Centers of Excellence at 1890 Land-Grant Institutions in America, as well as Hispanic Serving Institutions and Tribal College grants supporting programs to will attract outstanding students and produce graduates capable of enhancing the nation's food and agricultural scientific and professional workforce. An expanded opportunity through the AFRI Foundational and Applied Science Program not only supports small and mid-sized colleges, but now helps new investigators working to get their first grant. In FY2021, increasing the participation of underserved and underrepresented individuals and institutions in NIFA’s competitive grants programs is a priority for NIFA. 

Artificial Intelligence and Big Data investments

NIFA and the National Science Foundation announced seven new artificial intelligence institutes across the country to accelerate research, expand America's workforce and transform society for the future. Additionally, NIFA also awarded 12 grants totaling over $7 million to initiate research on big data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and predictive technologies needed to keep U.S. agriculture on the leading edge of food and agricultural production.

Responding to Emergencies

In unprecedented hurricane and wildfire seasons, NIFA investments helped Cooperative Extension respond on the ground wherever the disaster hit. Funding is made through NIFA’s Smith-Lever Special Needs Competitive Grants Program (SLSNCGP), which supports innovative, education-based projects that address emergency preparedness and specific responses related to natural and human-made disasters. Capacity funding through Smith-Lever and 1890 Extension ensures well-trained professionals are ready when they are needed to respond.

Support for Beginning Farmers and Ranchers and Military Vets

This year, NIFA invested more than $53 million across three unique programs for U.S. farmers, ranchers, and military veterans to support American agriculture. These programs support farmers new to agriculture get established to enhance their chances of success and to help military veterans returning to civilian life who want to farm get started in their agricultural enterprise.

Project Café

In addition to these program accomplishments, NIFA improved internal processes and customer service response because of your partnership with us through Project Café. After synthesizing your 900 thoughtful comments, we have made these improvements:
  • Program and grants management specialist training upgraded.
  • A system to reinforce comments from panels to applicants developed.
  • Standardizing application deadlines is underway and a new RFA calendar to highlight target release dates posted.
  • Implement technology and support for virtual review panels.
  • Developed a dynamic, interactive new tool for communicating the competitive grants process to help applicants better understand the process and roles to move an application from submission to close out.
With these quick action items complete, new teams are now forming to address some of the longer-term improvements needed across to the organization to improve our efficiency and help us deliver better customer service for you. You can track our progress on the Project Café dashboard and updates offered regularly through this publication.

These advancements are possible because, as stakeholders and partners, you gave your time and careful thought to help us improve. We thank you for your input and welcome your continuous feedback on how we are doing and other ideas we should consider in the future. NIFA’s energetic and creative staff is focused on public service values and dedicated to serve you effectively and efficiently in the new year. I hope you all have a happy and prosperous new year!
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