NSAC's Blog

Trump Administration Proposes to Uproot Ag Research

August 22, 2018

Ephraim Leibtag, PhD., Deputy Director for Research Foods and Economics Division, Economic Research Service explains food prices and retail food markets during the World Agricultural Outlook Board Forum in Crystal City, VA. Photo credit: USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

August in the capital is typically quiet; when legislators head home for the August recess, those of us who work in the world of federal agricultural policy are given a brief respite from an otherwise breakneck cycle of news and deadlines. This year, however, is not following traditional cycles. Faced with an ever-growing to-do list, the Senate took an extremely truncated recess and is officially back in session for the rest of the month. With the 2014 Farm Bill set to expire on September 30, legislators and House and Senate Agriculture Committee staff are working feverishly behind the scenes to get a farm bill negotiated on time.

The Trump Administration has also been busy this summer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is scurrying to finalize details of a $12 billion aid package to farmers suffering the effects of the Administration’s trade war. In addition, in a surprise announcement made recently by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, it was revealed that the Administration would be continuing its attempts to fundamentally reorganize and weaken the Department.

The Administration’s previous reorganization proposals raised considerable concern among rural and farming communities. One particularly disturbing piece of the reorganization efforts was the Administration’s move to eliminate a key leadership position, Under Secretary for Rural Development. Thankfully, the Senate has included a proposal in their draft 2018 Farm Bill that would reverse this short sighted decision.

Another troubling part of the Administration’s reorganization was the decision to bury the Packers and Stockyards program deep within the Agricultural Marketing Service. The mission of the Packers and Stockyards program is to enforce fair competition within the livestock sector; a clear misalignment within an arm of USDA dedicated to marketing and promotion.

The latest assault by the Trump Administration would dramatically impact two USDA agricultural research agencies – the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS). The Administration has announced that they will move the research agencies outside of the nation’s capital where they have historically and currently reside; interestingly, no economic or other analysis has been provided to show that such a move would be beneficial. Even more concerning than the physical move of the agencies, which will isolate them from key colleagues and resources concentrated in the capital, is the decision to remove ERS from the research mission area of USDA and place it within the Office of the Secretary under the direction of the Chief Economist. Moving ERS under the Office of the Secretary would compromise and politicize the very federal agency responsible for impartial food and agricultural economic analysis.

The reasons given by the Administration for the proposed move are to improve staff recruitment and retention, to place USDA resources closer to stakeholders, and to save taxpayer dollars.

Below, we unpack just what this proposal could mean for farmers, rural communities, researchers, and all those who depend on our country’s food and farm research agencies. 

Downsizing Food and Agricultural Research

Moving the physical locations of federal agencies could potentially yield positive economic and resource-related results. However, the Administration has provided no cost-benefit analysis to back up their decision to relocate NIFA and ERS – nor have they followed the law, which requires the Secretary of Agriculture to the extent practicable to give appropriate advance public notice of the proposed reorganization action and to afford appropriate opportunity for interested parties to comment on the proposed reorganization action. It is difficult to believe that in this particular instance it was impractical to provide advance notice and the opportunity for comment. Instead of normal good government practices, the move came as a complete surprise not only to the public and Congress, but also to the agencies themselves.

Even without a cost benefit analysis, any casual observer of USDA could see that the relocation of NIFA and ERS out of D.C. will most certainly result in a substantial loss of staff. By moving out of the capital region, NIFA and ERS will lose not just numbers, but are also likely to lose their most skilled and senior staff. These senior staff members are at the top of their fields and are concentrated in D.C. due to the long history of USDA and many other national agricultural research bodies maintaining headquarters in the capital.

Even if the agencies were to move to a location with a Land Grant University, a single state university cannot compete with the myriad science agencies, organizations and resources that are centered in D.C. It is certainly the case that some ERS and NIFA staff may move with the agencies, however, expecting that a majority will be willing or able to uproot their lives and families is wishful thinking at best.

With en-mass losses of NIFA and ERS’ most senior staff all but guaranteed, the reasoning behind such a move becomes clearer. Moving the agencies out of DC may be a sure-fire way to downsize them, and in the process to diminish the role of the public sector in agricultural research.

Given the Administration’s position on agricultural and economic research (see graph below), it would not be at all surprising if the vacancies resulting from moving the agencies were never filled. In last year’s budget request, the President proposed a 14 percent cut to USDA research funding, including a nearly 50 percent cut to ERS’ budget and a cut of over $100 million from NIFA grant funding. Congress wisely has rejected these cuts, but the reorganization scheme could achieve similar results, effectively doing an end run around congressional appropriations.

Chart showing cuts to research programs made by the Trump Administration.

A major function of ERS research is to provide USDA program agencies (Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency, Food and Nutrition Service, etc.) with findings that allow them to evaluate and improve their services to farmers and the public. This research is fostered by the close collaboration of ERS with the program agencies, something that would become more difficult with ERS staff not being in the interagency meetings at USDA in D.C. ERS also informs policymakers in Congress and at non-USDA agencies, all of which becomes more difficult if they are removed from close proximity.

If the proposed relocation and subsequent reduction in agency staff were to materialize, America would experience a disastrous reduction in its agricultural research capacity at the exact same time that Congress proposes to increase taxpayer investments in food and agricultural research through the 2018 Farm Bill. Downsizing a federal grant-making agency’s capacity while increasing its workload (i.e., getting more research grant funding out the door) would cause certain delays. These increased delays would, in turn, reduce USDA’s responsiveness and ability to assist to its research partners, stakeholders, and policymakers.

Politicizing Economic Research

Many stakeholders within the agricultural and economic research fields have serious concerns over the realignment and relocation of ERS. The physical and administrative moving of ERS is seen by many as an attempt firstly to shrink the quality and quantity of economic research conducted by USDA, and secondly as an attempt to politicize federal agricultural research by moving ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) within the Office of the Secretary. In 1994, Congress and USDA worked together to move ERS to the Research, Education, and Extension (REE) mission area and remove it from tighter political control by the Office of the Secretary.

To return ERS to OCE would shift the agency’s nonpartisan focus on providing broad analysis of the economics of food and agricultural policy to the decidedly partisan mission of providing backing for Administration proposals. Under the direct supervision of the Office of the Chief Economist, and in turn the Secretary of Agriculture, the integrity and comprehensive nature of ERS research could become compromised.

This structural move would hamper the ability of policymakers and taxpayers to understand the economic impact of public investments and federal policies. Access to unbiased data and research that agencies like ERS provide is particularly important in times like these, when economic and scientific analysis is often at odds with the Administration’s policies on trade, food assistance, climate, conservation, and other policy matters.

Questions Remain

One of the Administration’s key claims in proposing this reorganization has been that they are seeking to position USDA more closely to rural and farm stakeholders. Ironically, however, none of these stakeholders (let alone current NIFA and ERS employees or leadership) were solicited to provide feedback on this massive reorganization before it was announced. Key stakeholders are, sadly, as in the dark as to the motivations for and outcomes of this proposed move as the layperson.

Among the key questions yet unanswered in this reorganization effort is: as one of the 13 principal statistical agencies of the United States, how will moving ERS out of the REE mission area of USDA affect that essential role? Additionally, how will removing ERS from its direct connection with the other principal USDA statistical agency – the National Agricultural Statistics Service, also part of REE – affect the two sister agencies’ ability to coordinate on the critically important annual Agricultural Resources Management Survey?

Questions also surround the decision to move NIFA. For instance, why move NIFA – the major extramural grant making research agency for agriculture – out of D.C. but leave the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, US Geological Survey, Agricultural Research Service, and other major research agencies? How will that choice improve strategic coordination and efficient allocation of research endeavors and joint initiatives? Also, will the status of agricultural issues become weakened with NIFA unable to easily participate in person at White House and interagency scientific meetings, which take place during the normal course of business?

Nationwide, groups including NSAC, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), Union of Concerned Scientists, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SOAR) Foundation, and Friends of Agricultural Statistics and Analysis have raised concerns over the proposed move.

NSAC will actively work with these and other allies within the agricultural research community to raise concerns and make sure that the pertinent questions are asked and answered in advance of any relocation action. We are encouraging the Department to follow its legal obligations to provide an opportunity for public comment prior to taking a reorganization action.

We are also encouraging the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to use their right to review all administrative actions that will affect government spending to delay the process before the staff buyouts and relocations go into effect and demand a full rationale and cost accounting of the Administration’s proposal for their further review as part of the normal appropriations cycle this coming year. We will update readers as additional information becomes available.

Categories: Research, Education & Extension

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