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From the ARO Architects

They needed an act of Congress to create a new avenue for funding agricultural research. Here's their perspective on making it happen.

By Steve Rhines, Vice President, General Counsel and Director of Public Affairs
and Jeff Moen, Director of Strategic Alliances

Posted Oct. 18, 2017

Armed with some distant civics knowledge, a functional understanding of how legislation becomes a law, and a favorable memory of Saturday morning's "I'm Just a Bill" from School House Rock, we embarked on an endeavor to modify the Internal Revenue Code.

With the approval of the Noble Foundation Board of Directors in 2008, we set out to create a new type of 501(c)(3), an agricultural research organization. Our goal was to build public agricultural research capacity in the United States without commensurate federal spending. Undeniably, the effort was a nontraditional route to benefit public agricultural research – as well as all consumers of food and fiber – through the development of a new nonprofit vehicle to infuse greater private philanthropy into public agricultural research.

However, our concept wasn't completely novel. We were following a proven model of medical research organizations that had been created in the U.S. Internal Revenue Code in the mid-1950s. We knew there was a place for independent research institutes; we had the benefit of working daily at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, predecessor to today's Noble Research Institute.

We also knew what many entrepreneurial philanthropists had done by giving their wealth to private foundations or medical research organizations to solve great problems in the (non-agriculture) life sciences. Thus, it seemed appropriate to create agricultural research organizations so that like-minded philanthropists could do more to advance agriculture.

Perhaps it would have made for a great story if everyone had rapidly seen the merits of the legislation; if there had been no detractors, no distractions and we'd achieved quick passage into law. Such was not the case.

We started the project on the eve of the administration change following the 2008 presidential election. Our grand idea soon became mired in greater national discussions regarding bank bailouts, automotive industry bailouts, healthcare debates and adoption, a farm bill, and discussions of comprehensive tax reform. However, despite the noise, many listened to the purpose of our effort. Slowly at first, but over time, more than 65 universities, associations and organizations came to support the effort and the role agricultural research organizations could play in the agricultural research landscape.

There were ups and downs. We lost count of how many times we declared to one another that the next meeting was the "most important meeting to achieving introduction." Once the legislation was introduced as House and Senate bills, we rarely allowed ourselves the indulgence of believing the next meeting could result in passage of the bill into law.

However, during the seven years it took to attain passage, we consistently met engaging and helpful people with a strong interest in furthering agricultural research. At the top of the list were many legislators and staffs, from both rural and urban settings, that had a keen sense of future need and an understanding that public dollars alone cannot be the solution to the nation's agricultural research needs.

In 2015, the president signed into law the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015. Deep within the pages of that legislation, specifically Section 331, was the language that created agricultural research organizations. On the evening that Congress passed the Act, after checking and rechecking that Section 331 had remained, there was a moment when we had a chance to consider the journey from concept to inclusion in the United States' Internal Revenue Code. Throughout the process, we learned firsthand that many good ideas that start in the halls of Congress do not make their way out in the form of agreed-upon legislation.

It was a night to be grateful.

Having time to reflect, our gratitude is not limited to merely a body of lawmakers that voted "yes" that December night. We are appreciative of a Board of Directors that had the vision to undertake the project and the patience to see it through. Our legislative advisers were essential in navigating the legislative process for the 112th, 113th and 114th Congresses. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities provided guidance, and many agricultural deans and vice presidents provided insight in the early days of refining the proposed language that ultimately became the final law. We're also thankful for the legislative sponsors and co-sponsors who led the way for the legislation to progress to law.

We recognize that passage of the legislation was only the first step; broad implementation and use of agricultural research organizations is necessary to fulfill the ultimate goal. However, we are steadfast in our belief that agricultural research organizations have the potential to dramatically impact agricultural research and its outcomes for generations to come.

For us, the project was one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-career, and we are honored to have contributed to the legacy of Lloyd Noble.