Back in St. Louis after a stint in Washington, Beachy continues to champion agriculture and science
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 22, 2011 - Roger Beachy's office in the Busch laboratory building at Washington University occupies a second-floor corner where he can watch students walk between Graham Chapel and Olin Library and contemplate the statue of a rabbit mimicking Rodin's famous thinker pose.
Decorations on the walls and bookshelves show the range of his recent career as the first head of the Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, then first director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a post he held for 20 months. The agency was created as part of the 2008 farm bill.
Photos show Beachy with former President Jimmy Carter -- and with Fredbird. A picture signed with the name of philanthropist Howard Buffett features two ears of corn, one the traditional maize color and the other mocked up in red, white and blue. And a plaque dated this past May praises Beachy and thanks him for "your outstanding leadership in launching the National Institute of Food an Agriculture on a trajectory of growth and excellence."
But whatever trajectory NIFA (pronounced Niffa) manages to reach, it will do without Beachy. He quietly left the agency in May, where his appointment as its founding director was announced with great fanfare in 2009. His departure was not even announced in a news release, which he acknowledges created a vacuum that led to speculation about why his tenure was so short.
There really is no mystery, Beachy emphasized in an interview with the Beacon. He said he wanted to return to his family, which had never joined him in Washington but remained in St. Louis. He will return to continue research on virus-resistant sweet potatoes and on the technology of the industrial use of plants, at both the university and the plant science center.
Still, the issues he championed during his brief tenure remain, and he also hopes to be able to keep working on them from here. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the purpose of NIFA?
Beachy: It was designed to create a greater awareness of the importance of a science that supports the food and agriculture establishment and economy in this country and to restructure the research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be more problem-oriented.
At the same time, the issues that were identified by the secretary of agriculture and agreed upon by the national academies were described as grand challenges: sufficient food produced in a sustainable manner that is cognizant of natural resources, sufficient nutrition, addressing issues linked to obesity, nutrition and health, addressing climate change and the increasing need for biorenewable products produced by agriculture.
What was the response to those grand challenges?
Beachy: In that first year and a half we got wonderful cooperation in restructuring the previous organization and establishing four institutes: for biofuels, climate and environment; food production and sustainability; food safety and nutrition; and youth, family and community.
We really exceeded ourselves in what we thought would be the level of interest. That tells us the grand challenges that we were focusing on are of interest to people, to academics and non-academics alike. From that perspective, we were quite pleased.
At the same time, a lot of people came to our office and said, we'd like you to study this, we think that this is very important, why did you leave this out of your portfolio? In most cases, it was the amount of money that we had. Do you spread it around in little pieces, or do you try to have more impact by concentrating on a few goals? We chose the latter.
How did scientists react to your decisions?
Beachy: The first time they heard about this, they reacted like most scientists do, saying they would like to work one on one within their own university. Here I was asking for them to take a regional approach, not just a local approach, because in large part that's going to be what it takes to keep American agriculture successful.
But the scientists, and the teams that were created to apply for funds, were really quite remarkable. Very strong teams competed very well with each other in this competitive grant setting, and they met or exceeded our expectations.
As I went on, there were those who complained and were dissatisfied, those who felt that the best way would be to have Congress tell us what we should study. (Here, Beachy smiled.) Of course, we maintained that the best and most effective way to do research is through a competitive process, with peer review that selects the most competitive groups to be successful and receive the grants. That doesn't play well in some academic institutions that are not ready for such competition.
That old way has been part of the problem with the way the Department of Agriculture has funded its research. It has not maintained the highest level of accountability or the highest level of completion of quality research. In some cases, it works out fine. But it doesn't always work out for the best, so in the long run, the consensus of opinion is that the best way to improve research is to increase the amount of competitiveness between the best scientists.
Some on the Hill would like to have the power to say where the money should be spent. It's quite interesting to me that they would feel that way when it comes to agriculture but not when it comes to health.
How has support for agriculture and health differed?
Beachy: It really comes down to what should we do with limited resources. The amount of funding for competitive research in agriculture is 1/150 of what is available for the National Institutes of Health; for every dollar spent on agriculture research, $150 is spent for biomedical research. With this enormous disparity of funding, people are scrambling for the limited amount of money.
You have to ask yourself: Why is it the research for the science that supports food and agriculture and comprises an enormous part of the American economy is so poorly funded? Why is it that food stamps and the WIC program are necessary? How can we best provide nutrition under those conditions? How about our school lunch programs?
At the same time you need research to back those up. Why do we have so many instances of food-borne illnesses How much is the consumer responsible for it? How much is the producer responsible for it? If most of it is caused by the consumer, then education of the consumer is important. If most of it is caused by the producers of eggs or hamburgers, then let's make sure that those are controlled right and safe food is available.
This has an enormous amount of impact on this sector of our economy, and the fact that we invest so little in its success is not a good sign.
During your time at NIFA, and now back in St. Louis, what was your role in influencing the debate?
Beachy: I gave a lot of speeches, made a lot of visits around Washington, a lot of visits around the country, to talk about the need for changes. In the first year, the message was not always well-received. In the second year, people began to realize we needed to focus on fundamentals. But about that same time, the budget hawks in the House had a different view. That doesn't mean they aren't supportive. They were not highly supportive, but they didn't zero us out.
Jobs in Washington like mine are high pressure, high time-consuming jobs. Being separated from my family made it more difficult than I thought to accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish. There needs to be a continued effort to consolidate voices that support agriculture. Right now, we lack a strong coalition of voices that speak on behalf of this whole sector.
If you could have foreseen the circumstances of your time in Washington, would you still have left St. Louis and the Danforth Plant Science Center?
Beachy: I think I would have taken the same opportunity. I would have had more realistic expectations of what I could accomplish during the months I was there. I may have attempted to do too many things, and of course that causes a lot of overwork and overstress. It might have been better if I had focused on one or two things, but that's not my nature. I was pleased with the progress that we made, but there needs to be a continued effort. It's important that the initiatives continue, and I want to be supportive in any way I can to see that NIFA is successful.
There are those who think that a career in government means you don't work much, but the team I worked with was as hard-working as any I have seen. Some were angry at me leaving. They asked: How can you leave the challenge and the battle so quickly? The feeling was that for first time, in NIFA, they had a scientist who knew a lot of different things. I have a broad background and experience in immunology and food safety and food technology. They were surprised and really pleased they had someone who spoke the scientists' language and promoted the concept and the idea of science at a level the department had not seen before. There was a lot of disappointment that that voice would be gone. That's why it's important to find another scientist to fill that position.
Has respect for science increased in Washington with the Obama administration?
Beachy: The presence of science and respect for scientists got integrated throughout so many different departments -- agriculture, health, transportation, education, EPA. And it raised expectations that this White House was going to make decisions based on the best science. I don't think there have ever been as many members of the academies of science that have been appointed by an administration, at least not in the past 50 years. It's quite remarkable.
The challenge there is that not enough scientists may have enough policy background, and it may not always have the best outcome, but it certainly brought science to bear in a lot of settings. That's seen as an investment in America's future. We can't win the future without being willing to invest in education and science and technology, and the president realizes that Americans who will remain competitive in the future will require that.
How did your Amish background inform your service in Washington and elsewhere in your career?
Beachy: Science should be in service to society. Growing up in an Amish community, I was very much in a service atmosphere. It focused me pretty early on in wanting to have an impact in some way, whether as an educator or a leader.
I wish I could have developed a stronger, longer-lasting coalition of scientists and technologists to help them coalesce to be a more unified voice on behalf of science that will help America be competitive in agriculture for the next centure. From that would have come greater pressure on Congress and some chance that budgets would grow again. A coalition of voices can be supportive, and we didn't achieve that. But that's something I can work on from here.