Change Breeds Change at the ARS
BEGINNING in the 1970s the world's largest agricultural research organization found itself under sporadic attack for funding outdated research, poor management of scientific programs, and responding slowly to new developments and technologies. Today, the focus of the Agricultural Research Service's mission is somewhat sharper and the overall quality of the research is improving. But doubts persist about whether the agency can modernize and adapt to new ways of doing business fast enough to keep American farmers competitive in world markets in the year 2000.
These concerns have been heightened by the decision of ARS's administrator, Terry Kinney, Jr., to retire. A career ARS scientist who worked his way up to the top job at the agency in 1981, Kinney proved to be a master at balancing the competing demands of Congress, commodity groups, and agricultural schools. He managed to shake up the agency at a time when its budget was declining in real terms and in spite of some serious tensions with ARS's parent department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Kinney's stormy departure (see box), however, may set the stage for pivotal decisions on how the agency administers its research programs in the future. Kinney has criticized his boss, Orville Bentley, assistant secretary for science and education, for avoiding controversial decisions. And he fears the decision to replace him with someone from outside ARS, rather than a senior ARS official, may break the momentum in overhauling the agency's research programs and facilities. Bentley has named Ronald Dean Plowman, head of Utah State University's Department of Animal, Dairy, and Veterinary Sciences, to succeed Kinney.
But some legislators and scientists question whether the slow, steady pace of improvement set by Kinney for ARS's research programs is adequate and wonder if more fundamental changes are necessary. "What is needed is a very well-defined role, a focus on quality research, and strong leadership in light of today's times," says Winston Brill, vice president for research and development at Agracetus, a Middleton, Wisconsin, biotechnology company.
The emergence of large numbers of private agricultural biotechnology companies and the increasing use of new genetic engineering technologies by established firms also suggest that part of the agency's mission needs redefining. The companies are competing in an arena that ARS once dominated and their research activities often parallel those of ARS.
In February, Representative George Brown, Jr. (D-CA), chairman of the House agriculture subcommittee on department operations, research, and foreign agriculture, called for a general review of ARS activities. This "is a time for mapping the future course" of ARS, said Brown, observing that "The face of production agriculture in the coming decades" could change dramatically with new discoveries in the biological sciences.
Brown's proposal, however, was rejected by Bentley. "Many of us thought we would not be surprised at what the panel would tell us," said Bentley, who also turned down Brown's request to have a blue-ribbon panel identify candidates to succeed Kinney.
ARS's research programs have, in fact, been subject to...