Capacity Funding: High Impact for Land-Grant Colleges and Local Agriculture

NIFA Capacity Funding Review - Figure 1

In the complex funding ecosystem for land-grant university research and cooperative extension, capacity funding plays an integral role, according to a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Click to zoom. (Figure 1 from National Evaluation of Capacity Programs: Quantitative and Qualitative Review of NIFA Capacity Funding, TEConomy Partners, LLC.)

By Johanna Elsensohn

Johanna Elsensohn

For over a hundred years, land-grant colleges and universities (LGUs, as defined by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, as well as 1994 institutions) and associated research stations have received annual federal allotments known as capacity, or formula, funding. This money is authorized every five years by the Farm Bill and goes to fund research and extension programs that serve the various needs of agricultural communities through science and technology. Each receiving institution’s state is required to match this federal amount, essentially doubling this funding stream. In the 21st century, is this type funding mechanism still appropriate for research? And what does it mean for entomology as a discipline?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) recently commissioned a third party, TEConomy Partners, LLC, to evaluate the impact of the legislatively defined capacity funding as compared to the competitive grants model used by many funding bodies, including NIFA, to distribute federal research dollars. To evaluate funding program impact, TEConomy used publications, annual reports, patents, and an institution survey. The recently released report, National Evaluation of Capacity Programs: Quantitative and Qualitative Review of NIFA Capacity Funding, illustrates the utility of capacity funding by highlighting its unique qualities and overwhelming support from university leadership, researchers, and experiment-station directors. But why is this distinction important? Money is money, right? As the report shows, funding sources matter because they determine how money can be used.

What Distinguishes Capacity From Competitive Funding?

NIFA Capacity Funding Review cover

Flexibility. Each institution receiving capacity funding must submit Plans of Work to NIFA that detail

  1. issues important and relevant to that state or region
  2. a justification for how the list was assembled (i.e., who was solicited for input and how priorities were determined)
  3. the expected impact of the proposed work.

While research and extension activities need to be agriculturally focused, there are few restrictions on how the allocated money can be used. For example, at least 25 percent of each grant type (e.g., Hatch, Smith-Lever) is required to fund the integrated multistate activities that encourage collaboration on regionally important issues and prevent duplication of effort. In general, however, distribution is up to the colleges and universities receiving the money. Figure 26 in the report shows there is a wide distribution in how money is apportioned, from internal competitive granting to departmental distributions. Competitive grants have rigid budgets, which can make it hard to respond to unexpected changes in protocols during the duration of the project. Capacity funding has the flexibility to respond to these changes and can be used for a wide variety of agriculture-related activities.

NIFA Capacity Funding Review - Figure 26

In general, distribution of capacity funding is up to the colleges and universities receiving the money. A recent study commissioned by USDA NIFA found a wide distribution in how money is apportioned, from internal competitive granting to departmental distributions. (Figure 26 from National Evaluation of Capacity Programs: Quantitative and Qualitative Review of NIFA Capacity Funding, TEConomy Partners, LLC.)

This flexibility can come in handy during unexpected events. For example, insect pests and pathogens can take growers by surprise and lead to severe impacts if not addressed quickly. Capacity funds can be funneled to develop and rapidly disseminate vital information to growers to minimize crop damage or financial loss. Competitive granting structures cannot handle the rapid turnaround time needed to have meaningful impact.

Stability. Funding long-term projects via competitive funds can be difficult. Competitive grants typically last from one to several years at most, after which a renewal or new grant is needed to continue the work. Long-term experiments and data collection don’t often yield short-term results, so, if funders are looking for evidence of impact at these smaller time intervals, long-term research falls short. Short-interval assessments also incentivize projects with more immediate impact, lessening the ability to address the long-standing, complex issues dealt with in long-running experiments.

Capacity grants, on the other hand, can handle this type of time investment. An apple breeder looking to develop a new disease-resistant variety needs decades to go from initial cross-breeding and selection to mature, fruiting trees before they can be screened for resistance. The money needed to maintain the trees and land while the trees develop can come from commodity groups; however, the TEConomy report highlights the use of capacity funds for this purpose as well. While short-term impact from such an apple-breeding project is likely limited, the potential benefits in profit and product quality to both growers and consumers from a new apple variety could be substantial.

Localization. Competitive and capacity grants also differ in their scale of applicability. Federal funding bodies like the USDA, National Science Foundation, and Environmental Protection Agency receive proposals from across the country on a wide variety of topics. As the TEConomy report points out, competitive grants tend to favor basic research questions over applied research because of the potential for greater national impact. Basic research forms the building blocks of knowledge that can be used for different types of subsequent research. Alternatively, applied research is often geared toward solutions for specific issues. Factors affecting crop production are idiosyncratic; both biotic and abiotic conditions are often regionalized if not site specific. Capacity grants are given to state-level institutions, meaning the money can be used to develop localized and appropriate solutions.

Junior faculty. Newly hired faculty are under a lot of pressure to establish a successful research program. To alleviate some of this pressure, capacity funds can be used to help fund research activities and equipment for junior faculty, giving them the time and space needed to gather preliminary data and prepare proposals for competitive grants.

Calculating Impact

This report used methods both quantitative (e.g., publications, patents) and qualitative (e.g., surveys) to analyze the impact of capacity funding. The selection of evaluation metrics to adequately answer a research question is rife with challenges. Is the total number of publications an appropriate measure of impact? How about a word cluster analysis using annual reports? Just as endpoint assessment is challenging, so is tracking the monetary inputs. Because capacity funding can be put toward diverse purposes and is up to each institution, it’s incredibly hard to track how it is spent. Funds that go to salaries and infrastructure are vital contributions to the institution but can’t easily be translated into direct impact. Some universities, like Cornell University, use a transparent project-based process to track the money, but many institutions use capacity money to fund salaries. As a result, it’s understandable that TEConomy chose to use indirect measures to assess impact, but it’s also important to remember this fact when looking at its calculations of dollar-for-dollar leverage of capacity funding.

While the actual numbers the firm generated are based on indirect assessment, there is other research to support the claim that capacity funding has a higher and more direct impact on crop productivity than competitive funding (e.g., Huffman and Everson 2006). Additionally, other capacity programs have been developed over the years based on the land-grant model, suggesting there is value in a federal capacity funding system. Unfortunately, some capacity programs, like Sea Grant, may face elimination in the near future. The land-grant capacity program will likely not be threatened any time soon, based on the FY 2017 federal budget recently passed by Congress, in which NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative competitive grants program saw a 7.1 percent increase while the capacity side of NIFA remained stable, suggesting that competitive grants remain the primary funding mechanism for scientific research.

It doesn’t need to be said that the field of entomology is far more than agricultural and forest pest species. From what I can tell, however, these research areas are the only ones with the opportunity to receive capacity-type funding. This is not to suggest agricultural entomologists have it “easier” than urban, medical/veterinary, or systematic entomologists. As the TEConomy report indicates, only 7.9 percent of all capacity-funded projects from 2010-2015 (n=19,791) were specific to entomology, meaning the vast majority of this money is funding other agricultural projects. Entomology faculty, from any specialty, are expected and need to compete for competitive grants to help fund their research programs and further their individual careers. Meanwhile, capacity funding helps the department as a whole, which benefits everyone.

As the report concludes, competitive and capacity funding sources have their own strengths and weaknesses, and one is not an adequate substitute for the other. As history has shown, both guaranteed and merit-based funding have a place in America’s research institutions. Competitive grants may bring more prestige to institutions and individual principal investigators, but it seems that capacity funding should receive better recognition as an important part of how universities function.

This report shows the extreme utility of these funds, not available to non-LGUs, that help make many LGUs nationally recognized for excellence in research and extension. Reducing or eliminating capacity funding would have a significant and lasting impact on the quality and quantity of agricultural research vital to our food-production systems. Capacity funding is a small but mighty part of the federal budget.


Johanna Elsensohn is a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University with a major in entomology and minors in genetic engineering and society, and biotechnology; a National Science Foundation IGERT fellow in genetic pest management; and a member of ESA’s 2015 class of Science Policy Fellows.

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