Farming ranks among the most technologically intensive and productive industries. One reason is ongoing research. Now the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), part of the Agriculture Department, has a new administrator. To try and harvest some information about his research agenda, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with ARS Administrator Simon Liu.
Tom Temin If you would, just review the mission of the Agricultural Research Service, I think people think of it as a big farm looking type place in Beltsville, Maryland. But what actually happens there?
Simon Liu Well, as you know, that ARS, Agricultural Research Service is USDA as chief scientific in the House Research Agency. Our mission is very, very simple. We deliver scientific solutions to national and global agriculture challenges. The vision is also very straightforward. We have to be a global leader in our culture discoveries through scientific excellence. So ARS currently, we have about 2,000 Ph.D. research scientists and postdocs and 6,000 other employees. Our current budget in FY 2023 is 1.7 billion. We are currently conducting 600 plus research projects around the country. Those are the research project addressing important agriculture challenges, such as enhancing crop protection and protection, increasing animal protection and protections, preserving nature resources. There was climate change, ensuring the long-term sustainability of agricultural systems, providing nutritious food, protecting food safety, improving through quality and others.
Tom Temin Yeah, so that’s pretty much everything from putting a seed in the ground or a chicken egg in a hatchery to delivery to the American public. And does the research take the form mostly of grants to academic and other institutions? Or you’ve got 2,000 Ph.Ds on staff? How does it break down on who does all the research?
Simon Liu As a matter of fact, ARS, we are intramural research agency. So in a sense that the kind of research we do are internal people. Those 2,000 Ph.D. research scientists. So those people conducting research around the 90 plus locations, around the country, is being much more beyond just Beltsville. Each location had different weather, different soil type, different growing environmental conditions. So as a result, we need to conduct the agricultural research at many different locations around the country to support the local farmers and ranchers. Agriculture is local. So not only within the country, we also have overseas laboratories in Australia, in Argentina, France and Greece. We also collaborated a great deal with researchers from the university. So we don’t give grants. However, we collaborate with a researcher from the universities, the private companies, other nonprofit organizations and also other countries.
Tom Temin Sure. And I wanted to ask you about one of the particular topics, and that is agricultural productivity. And I think in the 20th century, beginning early in the 20th century, there was really revolutionary exponential increase in farm productivity. And is that still a grand challenge, do you think? Is there room for that kind of growth and productivity in the future, as the world population grows and farmland shrinks?
Simon Liu Absolutely. We continue to push the productivity of crops animal from many different front. Primarily, leveraging the advanced technology like the genomic selection and the genomic technologies. So yes, the endeavor continue, as you know that in the past, say 70 years, the yield of crops increased three times. This increase need to be continuing. We’re trying to find any ways that we can continue to increase the productivity so that we can feed the world.
Tom Temin And when it comes to pests that eat crops or otherwise harm the plants that produce crops, that’s more of a cat and mouse game, because you might solve one pest. The boll weevil or something I think is mostly done for, but then new ones arise and so you’re always chasing the latest threat. That fair way to put it?
Simon Liu Absolutely. As you know, the climate change impact a lot of insects and the pest. So we need to continue to do the research to see the trend of the insect, the pest, and then adopt the integrated pest management approach, so that we can control just one part, but also many, many different parts. Not just protect one prop, but also many different crops also. So it’s an integrated pest management approach.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Simon Liu. He is administrator of the Agricultural Research Service. And you are just named administrator, but you were acting for a couple of years and you actually have a long history there. Tell us about yourself, how you come to the farming and agriculture research business.
Simon Liu Well, I would say that having the opportunity to serve as an area administrator to support our undersecretary, Dr. Jacob Young, Secretary Vilsack has truly been the greatest honor of my professional career. I have worked for five different federal agencies in the past 38 years. So first, I work as a contractor to support NASA, a NASA mission for ten years. I work primarily on three different projects. First, as a programmer to support the Earth observing system. Second, as an engineer to support this space station project. And then the third, as a project manager to lead the Landsat 7 mission. So that was my first federal job, working as a contractor supporting NASA mission. And after that, I worked for the Treasury Department for three years. First, serve as a technical advisor to the Assistant Secretary and then the chief information technology architect for the department. So then I move on to the Justice Department. I worked there for three years. First, I serve as an assistant director for information management and security, and moved up to the deputy director and then the acting director. And after DOJ, I moved to [National Institutes of Health (NIH)]. I worked for the National Library of Medicine at NIH for ten years as an associate director and chief information officer for the library. And my last leg is for the Agricultural Research Service. I work for ARS since 2010. First, as the director of National Agricultural Library for four years. And then, as the associate administrator for research operations and management for seven years. So I would say this is my last stop in my career.
Tom Temin Now, none of those jobs, of course, you are not a farmer, for example. But being at all these years, 13 years at USDA, do you at least buy plant a few tomatoes in the backyard to get a feel for what the soil can do?
Simon Liu Well, certainly I do a lot of studies, but let me go back to my background. I was a farm boy, my parents, they are farmers, my brother, they are farmers. So as a farm boy, my passion is to get to give back to the agriculture industry and provide help assistance to farmers and ranchers that include my brother. They are conducting farming right now. So at this point of my career, I need to answer the call of my soul and come home to help that industry. That’s why I came to ARS, and ARS and USDA is really my home. And I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to serve at home.
Tom Temin The passion of the heart really does help. And just a final question, I wanted to get back to the research topic that is done. Is there a grant program for academic research or maybe even industrial or nonprofit research outside of academia as part of the program?
Simon Liu The grant organization is ground to my organization, which is the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. And NIFA is ground to the same mission area as ARS. So they are a extramural agency. We are a intramural agency. Our budget, those two agencies, our budget are roughly similar. We are 1.7. They are about 1.8 billion.