USAID nomination raises agency questions
Agriculture official's nomination sparks concerns about the future of USDA research programs and USAID's relationship with State.
President Obama's nomination of Agriculture Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Rajiv Shah to be administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development has won praise but is raising questions about the future of USDA agricultural research programs and USAID's relationship with the State Department and other agencies.
Officials at land grant universities are worried that without Shah's leadership it will be difficult to convince the Office of Management and Budget 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 physician and had no educational training in agriculture.
Shah had been hired as an executive at the Gates Foundation to handle health care but shifted to agriculture, and the thinking within the land grant community was that Shah's prestige would help convince appropriators to fully fund additional research authorities included in the 2008 farm bill.
In an interview on Friday, McPherson praised Shah as a "particularly thoughtful and broad-gauged person" who is an "excellent choice" for USAID administrator. "As to what it means for universities, the first question is what it means for development. And I think it is good."
D.C. Coston, a North Dakota State University agriculture professor who monitors implementation of the farm bill, said he was disappointed that Shah was leaving USDA but hopes the land grants and the Obama administration can find a new undersecretary quickly.
But as APLU leaders began arriving in Washington on Friday for their annual meeting, a lobbyist for several land grant colleges said there is already "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.
The lobbyist said land grant officials fear that Roger Beachy, a former president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis who has been appointed to head USDA's new National Institute for Food and Agriculture, will favor competitive grants over formula funds. Shah was scheduled to speak to the APLU meeting, but canceled and will be replaced by Beachy, a land grant official said.
Meanwhile, Senate aides said on Friday they expect the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold a confirmation hearing on Shah before Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., leaves for the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen in early December.
Kerry and Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., praised Obama for making the nomination but said they intend to use the confirmation process to discuss how USAID will work in the future.
Development advocates have been on a campaign for USAID to re-establish its independence from the State Department.
"The White House needs to give him a seat at the National Security Council and the State Department needs to give him back policy and budget authority of USAID operation," Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development said in a statement.
But USAID career officials and contractors noted the White House announcement of Shah's nomination did not include a separate State Department title, which some previous administrators have had, and that it is unlikely the 36-year-old will get that independence.