Shah nomination earns praise, raises concerns

Rajiv Shah

Researchers worry undersecretary's shift to USAID will hurt budget increase

By JERRY HAGSTROM

For the Capital Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Obama's nomination of Rajiv Shah, Agriculture undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics, to head the U.S. Agency for International Development, has won praise, but is also raising questions about the future of USDA agricultural research programs.

Shah, who had been in charge of agricultural development projects in poor countries at the Gates Foundation in Seattle, was confirmed earlier this year as the Agriculture undersecretary.

Agricultural researchers expected Shah to convince the Office of Management and Budget and Congress to increase the budget for agricultural research. But on Nov. 10, Obama nominated Shah to head USAID, the agency that delivers U.S. foreign aid to countries around the world.

Officials at land grant universities are worried that without Shah's leadership it will be difficult to convince OMB and Congress to increase the USDA budget for agricultural research.

Association of Public and Land Grant Universities President Peter McPherson, a former USAID administrator, had promoted Shah's nomination for the USDA post even though Shah is a medical doctor and had no educational training in agriculture.

Shah was hired at the Gates Foundation to handle health care, but shifted to agriculture. The thinking within the land grant community was that Shah's prestige would help convince appropriators to fully fund additional research authorities that were included in the 2008 Farm Bill.

McPherson praised Shah's as an "excellent choice" for USAID administrator.

D.C. Coston, a North Dakota State University agriculture professor who monitors implementation of the farm bill for the land grant colleges, said in a telephone interview that he was "disappointed" that Shah was leaving USDA but hopes that the land grants and the Obama administration can find a new undersecretary quickly.

A lobbyist for several land grant colleges said there is already a "lots of disappointment and lots of concern" that they have lost a champion who had come to appreciate the role that formula funds play in core support for the universities.

In general, the land grant schools, especially the smaller ones, find it harder to win competitive grants. The larger land grants and non-land grant elite public and private universities contend they win the grants due to their quality of their research programs, but the smaller land grants say the bigger, more elite schools win because they have better grant writing departments.

USAID also sponsors agricultural research programs and land grant colleges could benefit from Shah's leadership at USAID if he works to increase the budget at that agency. All USAID's agricultural research is focused on developing country problems.

The job of USAID administrator requires Senate confirmation.

Freelance writer Jerry Hagstrom is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail: jerryzhagstrom@hotmail.com

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