USDA Using a Restructuring Decision to Sideline Federal Researchers
Update 6-18-19: The USDA announced a decision to relocate two of its research agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), from Washington DC to the Kansas City region. Scientists from these agencies have been quitting in large numbers as a result of this reorganization.
What happened: The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced a restructuring of its research divisions, relocating both the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) out of Washington DC to an as-of-yet undisclosed location. Additionally, the USDA is aligning ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist, an office which reports directly to the Secretary of Agriculture. The staff affected by the move were caught completely by surprise, being briefed about the issue only one hour before USDA officials made the public announcement.
Why it matters: The restructuring may have been used to pressure scientists to quit, to greatly reduce the size of the scientific divisions, and to potentially limit the scientific integrity and autonomy of ERS researchers. Direct supervision under a political appointee has the real possibility of leading to more political influence over researchers. Conflict of interest issues may arise when the ERS researchers work on analyses that run counter to the Secretary's agenda or public statements. Research scientists need to be free from political interference in order to produce objective and accurate results because when political appointees decide to sideline scientists, they also sideline the whole scientific process.