In March 2020, tornadoes rampaged through Tennessee, killing 25 people and causing $1.6 billion in damage. One victim was the research farm of Tennessee State University (TSU), which lost greenhouses and other decades-old buildings for poultry and goat research. “They got wiped out,” recalls agronomist Chandra Reddy, dean of TSU’s College of Agriculture. Instead of using the school’s insurance to simply replace everything, Reddy instead wants to create state-of-the-art facilities.
Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a massive funding bill that could help Reddy achieve that goal. The nearly $2 trillion package, dubbed Build Back Better, aims to deliver on a host of President Joe Biden’s pledges, including expanding social welfare programs, strengthening health care, and curbing climate change. It also includes funding for numerous research programs and takes aim at addressing disparities in U.S. academic research. For example, it provides $1 billion in competitive grants to help minority-serving colleges and universities, such as TSU, improve their agricultural research infrastructure.
The bill still awaits approval by the U.S. Senate, which could tinker with its provisions. But there’s bipartisan support for the aid to minority-serving institutions, a step that Ami Smith, interim vice president for research at West Virginia State University, says would “go a long way to try to address research inequities across the system.”
In particular, more than 200 minority-serving institutions could see a dramatic boost to their agricultural research funding. These include historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and those serving Native American tribes and predominantly Hispanic communities. Many of those institutions belong to a larger group known as land-grant universities at which agricultural research infrastructure has fallen into disrepair, according to a study commissioned by the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU) that reviewed some 16,000 facilities at 97 institutions. It could cost $11.5 billion to carry out all the deferred maintenance, it found, much of it to buildings more than 50 years old. “We are in need—and frankly in dire need—of infrastructure updates for our agricultural research facilities,” says Caron Gala, APLU’s director of agriculture and international development.
Reddy hopes the legislation will help TSU build a new food science building and replace facilities destroyed or damaged by the tornado. For years, he had squirreled away annual funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to pay for the new lab. But escalating estimates of construction costs—now $13 million—and a lack of state support forced him to put the project on hold last year. “I was so frustrated, I said ‘I can’t take it anymore,’” Reddy recalls.
If passed, the Build Back Better bill would remove a USDA requirement that state governments must match any federal funding for research infrastructure. Lifting that requirement for the new $1 billion in research infrastructure funding would help cash-strapped states such as Tennessee.
Another windfall for minority-serving institutions is $100 million in scholarships for students planning to major in agriculture, plus $189 million for research and education. That influx of resources could help universities eventually win more competitive grants from USDA and other agencies, Smith says. “Those funds really do help us build the capacity to bring in more funding.”
Beyond agriculture, the bill contains at least $3 billion in other R&D funding for minority-serving institutions, tripling what’s now available to them through the U.S. Department of Education. For the first time, the bill would allow universities to spend some of the money awarded on facilities and equipment to improve their research capacity, says Victor Santos, director of government relations at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which advocates for HBCUs. Such a shift, Santos says, could “really expand the landscape of research universities in this country.”
The bill also includes more than $500 million for agricultural research aimed at combating climate change. That money would “supercharge climate-related research,” predicts Karl Anderson, director of government relations for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America.