Ramaswamy leaving NIFA, setting up battle over successor
Sonny Ramaswamy, the director of the Agriculture Department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will leave the position on May 5 and in July become president and CEO of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), a Redmond, Wash., organization that accredits higher education institutions in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington and in Canada.
Ramaswamy’s departure after serving the full six-year term of his appointment is sure to set off a battle to determine his successor, who will chosen by the Agriculture secretary and the White House Office of Personnel.
Ramaswamy has walked a careful line amidst pressures to spend government research money on conventional agricultural research, genetic modification, organic farming and nutrition. The choice of successor is likely to indicate the direction of USDA research for the following six years.
Congress established NIFA under the 2008 farm bill to to consolidate all federally funded agricultural research. It replaced the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service in 2009.
The directorship of NIFA carries an unusually high salary for the Agriculture Department, $179,000, in order to attract candidates who would make much more in academic scientific positions or in the private sector. Although the White House is involved in the choice of director, the person selected stays in the position even with a change in administration. The law allows the director to be reappointed for a second six-year term.
NIFA is particularly noted for its distribution of millions of dollars in competitive grants each year.
As USDA notes on its website, “NIFA links USDA with the land-grant university community, including historically black colleges and universities, Native American institutions, Hispanic and other universities, and other public and private organizations, to advance research, extension, and higher education in the food and agricultural sciences and related environmental, social, and human sciences.”
Ramaswamy, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012 after a lengthy search for the highest ranking USDA research official. Before starting at NIFA, Ramaswamy served as dean of Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences; director of Purdue University’s Agricultural Research Programs; university distinguished professor and head of Kansas State University’s Entomology Department; and professor of entomology at Mississippi State University.
In an NWCCU news release, former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “To those fortunate to watch him in action tirelessly communicating the importance of food and agriculture science and education with members of Congress, the news media, associations, think tanks, science organizations, university faculties, farmers and producers, state legislators, USDA stakeholders, students at all levels, and most importantly, with scientists across the country, there is no question that his passion lies in bettering the public’s understanding of science and education.”