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Ag Leaders Speak Out Against Pending Move of Federal Research Agencies

November 29, 2018

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has led the charge to relocate and restructure ERS and NIFA. Photo creidt: USDA, Lance Cheung

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has led the charge to relocate and restructure ERS and NIFA. Photo credit: USDA, Lance Cheung

Lending their voices to the growing opposition against the proposed relocation and reorganization of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), 21 former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists, Undersecretaries, and Land-Grant University leaders submitted a letter today to House and Senate Agriculture and Appropriations Committee leadership. In the letter, these 21 leaders outline the likely negative outcomes of moving and/or reorganizing the nonpartisan research agencies. They summarize the proposed move as one that will “undermine our food and agriculture enterprise by disrupting and hampering the agencies’ vital work.”

Earlier this year, USDA announced its intention to relocate both ERS and NIFA from their current bases in Washington D.C. Opponents of the move, including the National Sustainable Agriculture (NSAC), have warned that uprooting the agencies will lead to isolation as key partnerships with other federal research agencies and key stakeholders are severed. Critics have also pointed to the likely loss of highly experienced and educated staff who will not move with the agencies, as well as Congress’ reduced ability to oversee the agencies from a distance. Further, relocating the agencies can serve to undermine USDA funding of research, which has stagnated for the last 40 years.

Experts Speak Out Against Relocation

Signatories to the opposition letter included Catherine Woteki, former USDA Chief Scientist and Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education & Economics (REE) and Gale Buchanan, former USDA Chief Scientist and Under Secretary of Agriculture for REE, as well as Dean and Director Emeritus of University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Woteki, Buchanan, and the 19 other leaders signed on to the letter to underscore their dismay at USDA’s haste to undertake such a major restructuring, the speed of which is sure to cause chaos and upheaval within the Department and amongst stakeholders.

“Given the decades of planning and adjustments to optimize the work of REE, we are troubled the USDA seeks to dismantle the research arm in such a major way in a matter of months without a confirmed chief scientist, consultation of current or former REE, NIFA, and ERS leaders, prior engagement and input of the greater research community, and other good-government procedures,” the letter states.

The ag leaders signed on to the letter also cited the advances in agricultural research that have occurred thanks to NIFA’s ability to collaborate with other nearby research agencies. One example given was NIFA’s collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Health (NIH), and the Department of Energy to launch the Plant Genome Initiative – a program that sequenced the genomes of economically important plants, leading to the development of improved bean, potato, tomato, wheat, and barley cultivars. Without the luxury of physical proximity, many experts in the scientific and agriculture communities worry that partnerships like these will be hampered and NIFA’s collaboration with other research agencies and stakeholders diminished.

Woteki and Buchanan, – along with Jack Payne PhD, Senior Vice President at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida – also visited directly with members of the House and Senate Agriculture and Appropriations Committee to voice their concerns. As part of those meetings, the trio urged Congress to intervene in order to protect the integrity of the two research agencies. They cautioned Committee members that USDA has provided no justification as to why ERS and NIFA should be restructured, and no proof that relocation or restructuring would yield economic or research benefits.

Robust Opposition Among Stakeholders

NSAC has been a leader among the many organizations and stakeholders calling for a hold on the proposed relocation until all reasonable questions and concerns have been fully addressed. In September, NSAC joined with over 100 organizations, universities and other research stakeholders on a letter formally asking Congress to delay the proposed relocation. This followed on the heels of a similar letter sent directly to USDA, requesting additional information and the opportunity for the public to provide input about the relocation. To date, USDA has denied all requests for a formal public comment period and has provided stakeholders very little information about the relocation plan.

In October, stakeholder opposition increased further when 45 farm and scientific organizations sent another letter to congressional appropriators. In this outreach, signatories urged congressional appropriators to demand that USDA take no action on the proposed relocation and reorganization until Congress made the determination on whether or not to approve the proposal (i.e., provide funding for it).

REE Nominee Supports Relocation, But Commits to Preserving Scientific Collaborations

In his confirmation hearing today before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Dr. Scott Hutchins said he believed that the goals of the ERS and NIFA relocation laid out by USDA Secretary Perdue were the right ones. Dr. Hutchins, USDA’s nominee for REE Under Secretary, stated that moving the agencies closer to where agriculture takes place has value. When pressed by Senators on how the agencies will preserve the integrity of their scientific research and collaborations, however, he responded that he is committed to ensuring the scientific work is not affected by relocation. Hutchins made these assertions to the Committee while also admitting that he has not yet been briefed on the logistics of the move.

During the hearing, Hutchins praised NIFA’s partnership with land-grant universities saying that these were “REE at its heart”. On NIFA’s continued role as a leader in agriculture research, Hutchins reaffirmed his commitment to see that the science and collaborative work at NIFA does not suffer – especially when it comes to evaluating the agency’s role in helping farmers adapt to climate change. However, he maintained that investments should align with Congress and the Administration policies.

USDA Deaf to Concerns Raised Thus Far

NSAC and its allies oppose USDA’s plans to relocate ERS and NIFA, and are requesting that no appropriated funds be used to support their relocation. Stakeholders have broadly recommended that a full review and cost-benefit analysis be completed before any major decisions, let alone moves, are made. An Inspector General report has been initiated to review the proposal, but that may take months to complete.

Thus far, 136 expressions of interest have been submitted by various institutions from several states clamoring to host the relocated agencies. USDA has indicated that it intends to announce the new location in January 2019, and to proceed with physical relocation by the summer. It is expected that much of the agencies’ staff will be unable or unwilling to uproot their lives for the move, which would lead to a significant loss of highly specialized experts and the handicapping of many ERS/NIFA-supported programs vital to farmers and researchers.

NSAC will continue to monitor this issue over the coming months, and will continue to urge Congress to intervene to hault this move.

Categories: Research, Education & Extension

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