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After D.C. stint, Jahn returns to UW ag school
5/12/2010

When Molly Jahn left her post as dean of the UW-Madison's agriculture school last fall, she officially departed to serve as a deputy administrator in President Obama's Ag department.

But strange things happen in Washington.

On the day she arrived in D.C., her new boss, Undersecretary Rajiv Shah, announced he'd be moving to head the United States Agency for International Development. Now, after some five months of serving as acting undersecretary of research, education and economics -- a USDA division overseeing everything from research funding to agricultural statistics -- Jahn is set to return June 1 to UW-Madison's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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"I clearly am returning with a whole host of experiences and knowledge and connections that I have acquired during this experience that are going to be very, very helpful," Jahn tells WisBusiness.com. "I know how things get done (at the federal level). I've been a part of doing them."

Jahn says it's a very dynamic time in agricultural research, with demand for solutions to food and energy issues combined with a short supply of dollars in higher education. As dean, Jahn had already been instrumental in bringing the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center to Madison, in part with a grant from the Department of Energy.

Now, she feels she can further increase the agricultural research funding footprint at the UW.

"We've got some challenging times ahead of us in American higher education, especially public education," Jahn says. "Obviously, knowing how to leverage investments, knowing more about the full range of capacity across this country and its relationship to our needs in Wisconsin is going to be really powerful."

Jahn says she's particularly excited about her increased knowledge of the U.S. Forest Service. In addition to forestry comprising a sizable part of the state's economy, the Forest Service operates the Forest Products Lab wood research facility on the west side of the Madison campus.

As new undersecretary nominee Catherine Wotecki prepares to take over the agency, Jahn says UW should have plenty of opportunities to compete for more funding despite the rough economy. As part of her work in crafting and defending the Obama administration's FY2011 budget, Jahn says the USDA emphasized competitive research grants for universities.

"Historically, investments in agricultural research are very, very efficient investments with very high returns," Jahn says. "So, especially in times of financial stress, these investments are very sound investments."

Jahn adds that the grants will be particularly important as the nation looks to increase its use of renewable energy, arguing that the current funding structure for bioenergy innovation "isn't sufficient" to implement broad changes in energy consumption.

"Bioenergy is going to be a part of that picture one way or the other," Jahn says. "But we want to make sure as we make science investments in that space we're doing it in a way that correctly and as completely as possible anticipates the full set of foreseeable outcomes."

Jahn says that also applies to proposed carbon cap-and-trade legislation -- versions of which are still being considered in the Senate.

"This administration, and [USDA] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack in particular, emphasizes that in any of these innovations there is a potential for rural America to gain wealth and prosperity, as well as the potential for dynamics that we may be more concerned about," Jahn says.

"The devil's in the details; what's critically important right now for rural America is to make sure that as we set incentives, those incentives really do move us in directions that create benefits."

Jahn adds that the latest White House budget continues the trend of decreasing the fiscal impact of farm subsidies. Although Jahn acknowledges that subsidies are always in season for some lawmakers, she says the totals of subsidies have, over the last 10 years, "dropped really precipitously with respect to their fraction of the USDA budget."

"(Subsidies are) dominant in a lot of people's thinking about the way agriculture works, but as a matter of fact the trend is toward sharpening in the resolution of that tool," Jahn says. "We were very pleased in this budget to see that we were able to maintain that safety net for the vast majority of producers, while bringing down the overall commitment."

-- By Andy Szal
WisBusiness.com

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