An evaluation published this week by the National Academy of Sciences (see page 9) is only the latest in a long line of reports highlighting the inadequate level of support for properly reviewed, basic agricultural research in the United States. The academy says that funding for the National Research Initiative at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which supports competitively reviewed university research grants, should be expanded from this year's level of $119 million to $500 million.

The programme should be elevated in status within the department, the academy panel suggests. Grant awards should be increased to a realistic level and a 19 per cent ceiling on research overhead costs — which serves only to deter some researchers from applying for grants at all — should be removed. An outside committee of advisers should guide the programme, and USDA should appoint a permanent chief scientist to replace the current part-time arrangement.

All of this may be laudable. But it is doubtful if those in control of the purse-strings at USDA are paying much attention. Domestic and international programmes in agricultural research are being widely neglected, despite their rich scientific potential. In the United States, as in most industrialized countries, the government's budget for agriculture is under pressure. Repeated efforts to bolster investment in research have fallen victim to this pressure. The result has been little public investment in plant genomics, for example, to the detriment of both farmers and consumers.

The only way forward is to strengthen the scientific activities at USDA itself. This is recognized by the administration and the Senate, but not by the agriculture appropriations subcommittee of the House of Representatives. Last year, the Clinton administration asked for $200 million for USDA's National Research Initiative and obtained $119 million, not the $500 million envisaged when the initiative was launched in 1991. This year the administration is asking for only $150 million, indicating that its ambitions for the initiative are on hold. Next year brings a new administration, a new Congress and, hopefully, a more constructive approach to agricultural research.