Paul Sebesta is the director of the USDA ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria, commonly known as the Ag Lab. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more than 100 research facilities throughout the country, and NCAUR is one of the agency’s largest. Approximately 250 federal employees work at NCAUR, about 100 of which are Ph.D. scientists. The center has an annual budget of more than $31 million.
Sebesta is responsible for planning, coordinating and evaluating overall research programs designed to fulfill the goals of a complex national strategic plan for agricultural research within the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). He provides leadership and accountability for those programs and related activities, and coordinates the integration of the center’s research with associated interests of universities, other federal agencies, public entities and institutions in the private sector.
Tell us a bit about your background. What led you to the field of agriculture?
I am a native New Yorker but was raised in Oklahoma. I received my bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Oklahoma State University. My Bachelor of Science degree is in turf management—I was going to be a professional golfer. After reality set in, I decided to focus on agricultural research. My Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees are in crop science. I finished my Ph.D. in 1980 and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where I began my research career as an assistant professor of agronomy.
After two North Dakota winters, I moved to Wichita, Kansas, where I worked as a scientist and project leader with HybriTech Seed International, Inc., a Monsanto subsidiary. In 1987, I left active research and started my administrative career as a unit head with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Texas A&M University, where I was responsible for intellectual property rights management, plant materials licensing, as well as foundation seed production, distribution and marketing. From 1995 to 2004, I served as the director of the University of California Desert Research and Extension Center in El Centro, California. While serving as the center director, I also conducted research focused on the use of sugarcane and sweet sorghum as feedstocks for the production of ethanol, electricity and other value-added bioproducts.
In 2004, I made a career change and worked for the National Audubon Society as a program director. After serving in that capacity for about four months, I realized this was not a good fit. In 2005, I was hired by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to serve as the director of the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco, Texas. In 2008, I was transferred to Peoria and assumed my current position.
I got into agriculture quite by accident, or one could argue that it was my upbringing. My father was an agricultural scientist with ARS in Stillwater, Oklahoma. As a boy growing up in Oklahoma, I was fascinated by the ocean, so I just knew I was going to be an oceanographer. For a number of reasons, that did not work out and I lost interest. I was then advised that I should consider a career as a lawyer. That didn’t work out either. Then I developed an interest in business, so I took some accounting and economics courses in college. That was not a good fit!
As a very young man, I had helped my father from time to time in his research projects, and the conversation around the dinner table most nights was about my dad’s day in the greenhouse and lab. So I was exposed to agricultural research at a very young age. As an undergraduate, I worked part-time in the Agronomy Department at OSU, and all of a sudden, while struggling to find a major, I realized how much I enjoyed agricultural research, so I decided to pursue that as a career.
As you can see, my career path has taken a number of unique twists and turns, and it has taken me to a number of locations across the country. I can say that my career path has certainly not been planned. I simply took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves and maintained flexibility. As I tell young students thinking about their careers, flexibility is the key. Some people have told me that I have been extremely lucky throughout my career. That may be so, but I have a saying in a frame hanging on one of my office walls: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
Describe the recent reorganization and current modernization project of NCAUR.
On October 1st of last year, the beginning of FY 2010, a plan for the reorganization of the center was implemented. This plan was eight months in development and had input from multiple levels within the agency. This was a major reorganization that involved the realignment of specific research projects and the consolidation of all of the food safety-related projects into one research unit. It resulted in improved programmatic alignment and research management, and will enable the center to better fulfill its current research mission, improve the efficiency of operations and position NCAUR to address relevant problems into the future.
The center wing of our building is the original 1938 construction. With the funding the agency received as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), we are now beginning a two-year-long renovation of the center wing. The ARRA appropriated $176 million to ARS to conduct deferred maintenance projects on its facilities. Thirty-eight projects have been selected across the agency, of which the Peoria project is the largest. The total projected cost for the Peoria project is estimated to be $40 million.
How are research projects decided upon? What level of input do the scientists themselves have regarding individual projects?
We go through a rather lengthy process to determine research projects. Our research programs are on a five-year cycle, and as that cycle comes to a close, we engage our stakeholders in a series of discussions about their future research needs. This input is used by national program leaders in the Office of National Programs at our headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland to make decisions regarding specific areas of future research. Once these broad plans are communicated throughout the agency, scientists work to develop research project plans with specific goals and annual milestones. These plans are then peer-reviewed by external panels to determine their scientific merit. Upon completion of the peer reviews, project plans are finalized, incorporating the suggestions of the review panels. They are then approved, and the research commences.
The scientists have input at multiple levels throughout the project-planning process. They participate in stakeholder meetings and discussions with their respective national program leader. The scientists work with their specific program leader to draft the initial project plan outlines, and they write their specific research project plans.
What changes, if any, were felt when the Obama Administration took over last year?
The changes that have filtered down to us at NCAUR have been minimal. There has been an emphasis on transparency and accountability, as well as on developing stronger relationships with our stakeholders. From a research perspective, there has been a greater focus placed on childhood nutrition and health, climate change, and the sustainability of production systems.
How do you keep politics out of pure research, or is that even possible?
Regardless of the nexus between politics and research, we at NCAUR remain focused on our mission: to conduct cutting-edge research that results in the development of new and improved products and technologies, which leads to the creation of jobs and contributes to the economic development of our communities, the region and country.
Tell us more about the Ag Lab’s contribution to the local economy and community.
The staff of the center recognizes the fact that we are part of the local community and that the investments we make have significant impacts on the local economy. Much of the center’s $31 million annual budget is for salaries that circulate through the economy.
We also recognize that small businesses are critical to our economic recovery and strength, to building America’s future, and to helping the United States compete in today’s global marketplace. We strive to assist and protect the interests of small-business concerns in order to preserve free, competitive enterprise, which will strengthen the overall economy of our nation. In FY 2009, we made purchases in excess of $230,000 from 19 different small businesses in the central Illinois region.
In October of 2009, a new five-year operations and maintenance contract for the center was awarded to Ameritac, a small business located in Concord, California, in an amount in excess of $10 million. The contract staffs approximately 37 local employees, which has created job opportunities in Peoria. Materials used in direct support of the operation of the facility are also provided under this contract. A significant portion of those materials are purchased locally from small businesses. The contracts associated with the current multi-phase modernization project also present a boon to the local economy.
From 2000 through 2009, $21.6 million in appropriated funds have been allocated to the center for modernization. These construction projects created many jobs within central Illinois and stimulated the economy through material purchases.
The ARRA will significantly advance this modernization project. As stated earlier, the total projected cost for the Peoria project is estimated to be $40 million, which we estimate will create approximately 435 jobs. Core Construction of Morton has been selected as the general contractor for this project.
What are some of the popular misconceptions about the Ag Lab?
The most popular misconception that I have heard is that we are somehow involved in meat inspections or serve in some kind of regulatory capacity. Neither of these is true. There are many in the area who have driven past the center and wondered what goes on in the big brown building on the corner of University and Nebraska. I am hopeful that this issue of iBi will help them get a better understanding of who we are, what we do and the contribution we make to the community.
What is one element of your job that most people would not know about?
I have the best job in the world at a fabulous place where our scientists and staff are working hard every day to develop new products and technologies that will improve people’s lives. Each day I walk up the front steps of the building, and as I place my hand on the front door to enter, I wonder to myself, “What new discoveries will be made here today?” Now that is an exciting place to work!
What is in the works for the future?
We are currently working to expand our scientific capacity and capabilities, improve the efficiency of our operations in order to maximize research support, and to develop stronger relationships with our broad stakeholder base throughout the state, region and country. In addition, there are some other areas of research where we could certainly have an impact, and we are working diligently to advance these initiatives. iBi