The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s announced Tuesday its “middle” list of finalist locations to host the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA). The original 136 expressions of interest now have been narrowed down to 67.
USDA announced its plans to relocate ERS and NIFA outside of Washington, D.C., and to realign ERS to the Office of the Chief Economist on Aug. 9, 2018.
“The announcement of this middle list shows that we are committed to the important missions of these agencies and transparency in our selection process. USDA will make the best choice for our employees and customers,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. “Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers.”
For this initial down-selection, USDA applied a set of guiding principles against the expressions of interest locations, such as USDA travel requirements, labor force statistics and work hours most compatible with all USDA office schedules.
However, opposition remains to removing the research entities outside the Beltway.
Many in the agricultural research community have been united and vocal in their opposition. In October, 56 former USDA and federal statistical agency officials, including former undersecretaries and deputy undersecretaries, wrote to Congress warning of likely damage to U.S. agriculture and farming and urging the agency abandoning the proposed plans.
“We’re disappointed to see USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue persisting in his plans to uproot the USDA research arm, despite the overwhelming concerns of its former leaders and the greater statistical and agricultural research community,” American Statistical Assn. (ASA) executive director Ron Wasserstein said. “The USDA leadership developed their plans without consulting any of the agency’s current or former research and statistical heads or the broader research community. With that community now having strongly voiced its concerns and opposition, USDA seems intent to proceed without course corrections.”
Gale Buchanan, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary in the George W. Bush Administration, pointed out, “USDA has yet to address two basic questions: (1) What are the problems they are proposing to fix? (2) How will the proposal make the agricultural research system better? I’m confident the reason these questions go unanswered is that the moves don’t fix a problem and the system won’t be improved. USDA’s announcement is another step in the wrong direction.”
The foundation of sound government decision-making is good information,” said Susan Offutt, ERS administrator under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “By not consulting all the members of the community who value ERS and by not examining the costs and benefits of the plan for relocation and realignment in a systematic analysis, the department shreds its credibility by insisting it has made the right decision without considering all the evidence.”
Catherine Woteki, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary in the Obama Administration, noted her concern in light of the precipitous declines ERS and NIFA have seen in the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. “The rankings drop, and the reports of high attrition rates trickling out in recent months are very troubling. They are, however, only a fraction of the eventual rankings drop and brain drain expected by an actual move to one of the middle-list locations. It’s time for the USDA to listen to its employees and the outside expert and stakeholder community to withdraw their ill-advised plans.”
Academic, economic and governmental institutions made only a handful of bids, and one proposed location that evidently meets USDA’s rigorous criteria to house these world-class agencies was recommended by a “private citizen” in Hanover Township, Pa.
Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs in the Food & Environment Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, stated, “The Trump Administration’s reality TV-style contest to relocate USDA research agencies makes a mockery of food and agricultural research. The White House continually touts its support for farmers, ranchers and rural economies but has worked to systematically dismantle evidence-based research and programs that serve those very constituents. Just yesterday, it proposed a 7% cut to the USDA research portfolio. Moreover, the Administration has developed this proposal with little to no stakeholder input.”
ASA president Karen Kafadar urged “Congress to halt USDA’s plans to move ERS/NIFA to protect the research and statistical foundations of our food, agricultural and rural economies."