Dan Murphy: A Bad Move By USDA

Research agencies are especially vulnerable to political pressure to scale back their budgets. ( USDA )

A planned relocation of two of USDA research agencies from the D.C. to Kansas City is billed as a cost saver, but it feels more like a way to minimize their work and muzzle their personnel.

The recent developments within USDA’s research agencies are very disturbing.

As part of what was initially proposed as a money-saving plan involving the scientists and technical personnel within the department’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue is pushing forward with a plan to relocate the agency’s operations — and hundreds of scientists and staff — from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Mo.

ERS is the agency within USDA that provides statistical data on the impact of various agricultural programs and policies to assist Congress in developing legislation; NIFA funds research on a variety of projects broadly centered on agricultural science.

When the relocation idea first surfaced last year, Perdue pitched the move as a way to bring ERS and NIFA closer to “stakeholders” and “customers,” i.e., farmers. The plan quickly gained traction. Indeed, according to news reports, more than 130 locations submitted proposals to USDA, hoping to land the relocated agency.

That’s understandable: other than prisons, most rural communities have scant hopes of having the federal government show up with plans to site a large agency staffed with hundreds of professionals right on the outskirts of their town.

Despite the supposed benefits of relocation, however, the larger context of developments within USDA suggested more sinister motivations on the part of administration officials, other than trying to get closer to “customers.”

Science versus politics

For one, the administration’s budget for fiscal 2020 proposed slashing funds for ERS research overall, especially in the areas of nutrition and rural health, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. In addition, Secretary Perdue has stated that he planned to move the agency under the control of the department’s office of the chief economist, which reports directly to the secretary.

If there is one sacred status that should apply to all publicly funded research, it’s that the scientists and researchers involved need to operate independently. Simply stated, scientific inquiry conducted as part of a political agenda — doesn’t matter whether it’s right, left or center — cannot be trusted, and if there is one truism to which all politicians should pledge allegiance, it’s that sound science ought to be the basis of policymaking.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing “sound” about scientific data if the agency where the work was performed isn’t committed to allowing their personnel and programming to proceed without interference.

As it now stands, USDA is planning to relocate all but about 75 ES and NIFA personnel to Kansas City by August, and already both agencies have experienced significant departures of senior personnel who have already decided they’re unwilling to relocate.

After all, how many of us would be in a position to uproot our families, sell our houses and move thousands of miles from home to an area where we likely would have few, if any, any family members — all in a matter of weeks?

Not many, I’d be willing to bet.

The timeline and the arbitrary nature of the forced relocation feels more like an attempt to minimize the impact of the two agencies’ research on sensitive subjects for the White House, such as climate change and the economic status of rural communities in farm country.

Plus, there’s a reason every lobbyist of any stature whatsoever works out of offices adjacent to Capitol Hill. Decisions that affect federal agencies and the levels of funding they’re appropriated are made in Washington, not Kansas City.

Research agencies are especially vulnerable to political pressure to scale back their budgets, given that the current administration has displayed open hostility to the reports and data developed by its own scientists.

Sending ERS and NIFA out to the heartland appears to be more along the lines of an exile, rather than a relocation. Far from getting closer to stakeholders, the move seems designed to get rid of a significant number of scientists and researchers — which would justify downsizing both agencies — and to literally remove the visibility of their data and policy recommendations thousands of miles away from the lawmakers who provide their funding.

Ironically, this planned attempt to minimize the capabilities, and thus the impact, of these agencies comes at a time when agricultural research is desperately needed, both to maintain U.S. food production viability and to continue the quest for ways to feed the additional three billion people expected to be alive by mid-century without compromising the limited global resources of arable land, available water and affordable energy.

As a nation, we need to be ramping up research to improve all aspects of agricultural productivity, not devising ways to cripple two of the agencies tasked with important pieces of that responsibility.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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