WASHINGTON (October 1, 2018)—More than 1,100 scientists and economists from across the country sent a letter to congressional leaders today, opposing the Trump administration’s proposal to reorganize and relocate key research branches at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The proposed changes threaten scientific integrity at the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and could further marginalize their critical research from policymaking, according to the letter. If Secretary Perdue’s plans are realized, the ERS and NIFA will be relocated from their current offices in Washington, DC, and the ERS will be transferred to the aegis of the Office of the Chief Economist, which reports to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
The outcry from scientists comes on the heels of a letter last week from Secretary Perdue defending the plan to a bipartisan pair of Senate leaders who have also questioned it. Responding to Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Perdue claimed—without providing evidence—that relocating researchers outside of Washington, DC, would attract highly qualified staff and foster closer collaboration between researchers and stakeholders. More likely is that the move would have the opposite effect. Many NIFA and ERS staff are drawn to the national capital region, where they can work alongside legislators and other federal agencies, and more seamlessly integrate agriculture research with the greater national science community.
“As a former national program leader at NIFA and a farmer, I have firsthand experience of how the USDA serves customers,” said Diana Jerkins, research director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation. “Stakeholders travel to DC to meet with NIFA, ERS and other government officials including members of Congress, all in a single trip. If NIFA and ERS are moved, it will make interaction with these agencies more challenging. Additionally, the ability of these research agencies to work on joint programs, collaborate with other researchers and government officials and serve the customers of USDA—it would be greatly diminished.”
The signers also worry that moving ERS from the Research, Education and Economics (REE) mission area will undermine the agency’s work to objectively collect and analyze data on issues ranging from agriculture and conservation to food and rural development.
“The mission of ERS is to generate research free from the ideological positions of a particular administration,” said Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Placing ERS in the Secretary’s office means that ‘inconvenient’ data can be more readily suppressed or manipulated.”
Recent nonpartisan ERS analyses have undercut Trump administration messaging on issues including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, trade agreements, climate change, the Clean Water Act and crop insurance.
“ERS produces valuable analysis to inform policy decisions with real impacts on farmers, consumers, rural communities and the natural resources we all depend upon,” said Carol Adaire Jones, a former associate director of the agency’s Resource and Rural Economics Division and now a visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute. “Congress should act to preserve its mandate and protect its integrity.”
The scientists’ letter calls for congressional committees with jurisdiction over the USDA and its budget to delay the reorganization until agency employees, federal researchers, Congress and other stakeholders have been given the opportunity for input into the process. Other recommendations include keeping the ERS within the REE branch of the USDA, and ensuring that the agency continues to have access to data and statistical resources.
For more context on how Secretary Perdue’s proposal to reorganize the USDA fits into a larger pattern of the Trump Administration weakening protections for scientific integrity at federal agencies, see this blog by Karen Perry Stillerman, senior analyst in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.