Suggestions for Structural and Process Reform of

USDA Forest Research


In May 2002 the National Research Council released its report on the nation’s forest research capacity, [1]  and the USDA Forest Service hosted a Forest Science Summit at Georgetown University. These events stimulated several dialogues among agencies, associations, and others concerned with the conduct, delivery, and use of forest research. America’s Forest Research Policy, released in April 2004, highlighted several broad ideas for improving the structure and process of the USDA’s Forest Research System. These ideas reflect ideas in presentations by agency and other leaders in forestry’s research and professional communities. Moving beyond general solutions, however, requires some details and specific, actionable steps. This draft paper presents possible steps for consideration by the Policy Committee of the Society of American Foresters.


In recent discussions by FRAC and other groups, four specific steps were identified that would improve the results and productivity of forestry research and related extension [2] activities.


The following sections deal with some details and steps for each of these elements of reform. The best results probably would be achieved by work on all four elements at the same time with interacting iterative processes that learned as they went along in the respective tasks.


A Common Vision

A common vision of the USDA Forest Research System would include agreement on criteria for measuring success, general resource allocations, and functional relationship among the elements of the system. Development of a common vision should develop as other steps are being taken so it will be both a guide and a response to ideas developed elsewhere. The visioning process is a real time response to questions: What is? What ought to be? Over time, it would allow validation of progress or lack there of, and it could congeal a unified voice for budget increases and additional funds.


An appropriate process may require some development, but we suggest starting with the roundtable process used in the Seventh American Forest Congress in 1995-96. With new networking and conferencing technologies, roundtables at local levels and among peer groups could be used to create a national vision in three to four meetings of less than a day each and with no substantial travel.


Big Picture Science and Long-Term Research

This category reflects some of the traditional distinction between basic and applied research. However, the most critical distinction is the length of time between initial research design and results that have practical implications. For pragmatic reasons, we suggest that approximately five years or longer for results be the primary criterion for distinguishing this category from the applied research discussed below. Some long-term research is driven by quite practical problems, and some basic research yields useful answers in a short period of time.


The distinction made here is not between good and bad science. “Good Science” is a criterion that should guide all research fund allocation and evaluation. However, fund allocation long-term research must be guided by criteria more common to the National Science Foundation and similar sources of basic research funding.


“Big Picture” forest science is funded by NRI, some Forest Service budget allocations, and a little McIntire-Stennis funding. NSF, DOE, NASA, and other non-USDA funding are critical in the total budget allocations for basic forest science in topics such as forest ecosystems, biotechnology, and certain applications of remote sensing. The common ground generally is that these funds are awarded through competitive processes following an RFP or similar announcement. Peer review of proposals is virtually always used, and frequent post-award evaluations are common.


Improving the USDA award process in forest science is desirable. The NRI process can be improved by learning from established systems like NSF, NIH, and perhaps DOE/Agenda 2020. Improvement would benefit all USDA funds that flow through NRI.


Separating out the forest-focused NRI research form other topics in agriculture, nutrition, and the like would lead to more competition for the funds and more funds from sources outside the USDA/NRI budget. In particular, a guarantee of allocation to forest science would increase the likelihood of Forest Service funding a part of the NRI forest science competition each year in two or more problem areas. An advisory panel of 9 to 11 outstanding forest scientists, nominated by their peers, would give the NRI forest science funds a stronger standing in the science community.


Some long-term research is not suitable to competitive bid. Managing research forests and rangelands, tree improvement trials and orchards, and Forest Inventory and Analysis are examples of research activities where the Forest Service has considerable comparative advantages over universities and other forest research units. While competitive bidding is not useful, on-going peer evaluation is needed, perhaps by the same panel that would oversee the Forest NRI funds allocations. External, reasonably objective oversight by experts provides evaluation of the quality and direction of long-term research. It also insures that the long-term research scientists involved in long-term work are fully aware of the latest results from the “big picture” projects.


Integrating Applied Forest Research and Extension

This idea appears to garner strong support in almost every quarter, especially when the term extension includes outreach, technological transfer, and demonstrations, which are terms used outside the Land Grant cooperative extension programs. While not all advocates see it as a two-way process, applied research needs to hear and be guided by client priorities. Effective listening and translation of client problems into research questions creates a demand for answers.  This two-way role of communicator is not fully appreciated by many researchers and some extension personnel.


One of the advantages of applied research coupled with extension is that the primary criterion is on-the-ground application of new information and knowledge. The high success of industrial forest research in the 1965-85 period was because the payoffs on the ground were obvious. Research and outreach teams worked closely with operating foresters. Stand spacing, fertilization, and improved seed are examples of the payoffs to this effort.


One example that used considerable biological science was a need to improve the genetic quality of hemlock seedlings in a short period of time. Forest geneticists, tree improvement foresters, and tree physiologists, working closely with nursery and field people, gathered superior clonal material from adult trees. It was rooted using the latest technology, and then two year-old clones were treated with gibberellins to obtain early flowering. The first batch of dramatically improved seed was delivered in year three. The payoffs were enormous and they were obvious to the clients as well as researchers. Publications were not a major goal, but researchers were rewarded for concrete results.


Unification of Budgeting, Monitoring and Evaluation Processes

The Forest Service was created in 1905 by moving the Forest Reserves to Agriculture where they became the National Forest System. Agriculture had the Bureau of Forestry, which conducted research and a mix of extension and service forestry activities. One reason for this solution was to promote a scientific base for America’s young forestry agency in the department that created America’s agricultural science capacity. However, probably the more compelling reason was to isolate the national forests from the much more politically influenced Department of Interior.


This solution was corrupted in the 1920’s when the Forest Service budget was placed under the jurisdiction of the Interior and insular affairs appropriation committees in the House and Senate. This makes some sense because the Forest Service is more like the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service, which are major operating land management agencies in the Department of Interior. However, Forest Service R&D, State & Private, and International activities are more like CSREES, ARS, ERS, and similar research and technology transfer agencies in Agriculture. The Agriculture committees understand applied science and are used to dealing with the ambiguities and risks of investments in research. Interior committees, in contrast, are more familiar with the issues of managing large federal estates, often in relatively isolated western settings where public resources overwhelm private resources.


An important result of this historical quirk is that the Forest Service R&D is not in close contact with other USDA units, but especially CSREES where McIntire Stennis and RREA funding is managed. This helps create a disjunction between the public universities, which received funds from CSREES, and the Forest Service. More critically, the budgeting, monitoring, and evaluation systems work differently and may not use the same criteria. Consequently, it is not possible to assess how the whole UDA Forest Research System is doing and the potential for improvement in results and value delivered to the taxpayers.


While an actual unification of the budgeting process for R&D, State and Private, and International with Agriculture would be one way to resolve this dilemma, the politics of the House and Senate and the battles to prevent any changes in committee turf probably make this impossible. The more likely way to accomplish this end is for the agency leadership to make it happen through ongoing coordination and cooperation.


The forestry groups in CSREES and FS might take on the following tasks:


A Few Observations on the BRP Report


The Blue Ribbon Panel Report received mixed reviews. The Administration, which is concerned with reducing discretionary spending as a response to war-driven deficits, was not happy about the second recommendation – increase funding by 50%. Some general supporters of research – e.g., many state foresters – are concerned that any increase in research funding will come at the expense of their USDA-funded programs. Some university observers simply want a larger share of the USDA forest research budget, but are not inclined to reform, especially of accountability. Some in industry did not see the blunt call for more emphasis on productivity research that they feel is needed. Some Forest Service leaders feel that the accusation that the priorities have been biased toward National Forest System problems was wrong. Interestingly enough, the less favorable reviews come from leaders who often see change is negative in terms of their scope and power.


On the other hand, many researchers and operating foresters responded favorably to the report. They see the structural issues as critical, and they see payoffs to integrating highly applied research with extension-like activities. They want to improve the system, not tear down any component, and they understand that structural and process reform must come before substantial increases in real dollars. This is an interesting contrast to the voices that are most vociferous in criticizing the report.


The spirit of the comments and suggestions in this brief paper is to provide some concrete next steps in an evolving policy regarding forest research in America. We think that forward movement can be made that do not threaten any major element of the system. The payoffs to these initial steps, coupled with a changing world context, will make the following steps easier. These may include increases the funding for USDA forest research programs, but even more likely these steps will move the nation to an agreed-upon vision of what the system can and should do and how it should function.

[1] National Research Council. 2002. National capacity in forestry research. Committee on National Capacity in Forestry Research. Washington: National Academy Press. 162 p


[2] Extension is a term normally used by the USDA and land grant universities for activities funded by Smith-Lever, RREA, and related USDA funds. However, the Forest Service and non-land grant schools also do considerable extension work, often referring to such work as technological transfer, outreach, or demonstration. For purposes of this discussion, all are lumped under the common heading of extension, but hopefully capturing the remarkable range of traits we see in the USDA and related systems.