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House Democrats gear up to block planned move of USDA research agencies

A plan to move two U.S. agencies that fund farm research and track agricultural statistics out of Washington, D.C., has drawn opposition from researchers.

By Jeffrey Mervis

*Update, 20 December, noon: A group of influential Democratic legislators has signaled their desire to overturn Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to relocate and realign two research agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) once their party takes control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2019.

Today, the legislators introduced a bill (HR 7330) that would keep the National Institute on Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS) in the Washington, D.C., area. USDA has received 136 bids from communities wishing to host the two agencies, and Perdue has said he hopes to select a winner in late January 2019. The bill would also block the secretary’s plan to move ERS from under the head of research, education, and economics to the office of chief economist.

The legislation has no chance of being passed by the current Congress, which is expected to finish its business this week. But the lineup of sponsors—which include lawmakers in line to lead both the House appropriations committee and its agriculture panel, as well as the next House majority leader—suggests it will be a Democratic priority in 2019.

“We thank the bill’s sponsors for their leadership and commend their championing of evidence-based policymaking, as well as food and agricultural research,” said Lisa LaVange, president of the American Statistical Association in Alexandria, Virginia, which has spearheaded community opposition to the USDA plan. “We look forward to working with them and all members of the 116th Congress to ensure the agencies best serve the nation and its taxpayers.”

Here is our original story, which ran on 17 December:

Agricultural scientists are deeply unhappy with a plan by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to move two of its research agencies out of Washington, D.C. However, to date, their objections have gone largely unheeded, as the scientists find themselves outmaneuvered politically and lacking the clout to convince Congress to intervene. Instead, USDA hopes to pick a new location by the end of next month and complete the moves by the end of 2019.

On 9 August, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced plans to relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in Washington, D.C., USDA’s primary source of competitive grants for academic research, and the Economic Research Service (ERS), its major in-house research and statistical office. He also said that ERS would be reporting to the department’s chief economist (see sidebar) rather than its undersecretary for research, education, and economics (REE), which also oversees NIFA and the Agricultural Research Service. In a shrewd political tactic, Perdue simultaneously invited communities to compete for the opportunity to host the two agencies and gain the 700 jobs that would be transferred.

Perdue said the move would bring those agencies closer to the farmers and ranchers who ultimately benefit from the research that NIFA funds and the analyses and number crunching that ERS conducts. He also claimed the move would save money through cheaper rent and enable USDA to attract and retain top scientists now repelled by the high cost of living in the nation’s capital.

But many researchers say those reasons don’t make sense. “All of them are bogus,” says Sonny Ramaswamy, an entomologist who stepped down this May after leading NIFA for 6 years. “The entire rationale offered by Secretary Perdue is based on false assumptions and zero data.”

One such erroneous assumption, researchers say, is that the two agencies directly serve farmers and ranchers. Although the government hopes the research NIFA funds will ultimately improve agricultural practices and productivity, the land-grant colleges and universities that conduct the research are NIFA’s actual constituency. Similarly, ERS reports are aimed at senior USDA officials, members of Congress, and Washington, D.C.–based think tanks involved in agriculture and nutrition, not a lay audience.

The proposal is not simply wrong-headed, opponents add. Instead of seeing the benefits that Perdue claims, researchers predict that productivity at the two agencies would plummet, not improve because talented scientists would leave rather than move to a different city.

“The most likely result is that you’ll lose a lot of good people,” says Joseph Glauber, former chief economist at USDA and now a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. “I’ve already been asked to write several letters of recommendation for ERS people [applying for another job], and that’s really disappointing.”

Draining the swamp

Why is Perdue trying to move NIFA and ERS out of Washington, D.C.? The simple answer is that he can.

Perdue, a Republican and former two-term governor from Georgia, has been busy reworking the sprawling agency since taking office in April 2017. Within a month he had created an undersecretary of trade position to reflect one of the priorities of President Donald Trump, erasing a similar slot for rural development. Last fall, he consolidated several offices dealing with commodity procurement and outreach efforts.

Moving NIFA and ERS continues that effort, which aligns with Trump’s management directives to restructure the federal government. It is also consistent with calls from many Republican legislators to “drain the swamp,” including a bill (S. 2592) by Senator Joni Ernst (R–IA) that would encourage Washington, D.C.–based federal agencies to relocate their operations outside the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

The announcement caught the research community completely by surprise. Its leaders say Perdue’s refusal to consult with them ahead of time was disappointing, but not surprising. It’s symptomatic of the field’s second-class status within the federal research hierarchy, they add.

“It’s embarrassing how little the government spends on basic agricultural research,” says Jack Payne, senior vice president for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Gainesville. As proof, he contrasts the $400 million budget for the competitive grants program within NIFA with the $32 billion given the National Institutes of Health and the $6 billion research budget of the National Science Foundation.

Food and plant scientists say the move would worsen the years of fiscal neglect by the federal government for their field. Of the major research agencies, agriculture is the only sector in which investment has shrunk over the past decade in constant dollars. “This move will weaken our agricultural system at a time when the world is facing a growing challenge to feed 10 billion people [the projected global population in 2050],” Payne argues.

Catherine Woteki, who served as chief scientist and REE undersecretary at USDA for most of former President Barack Obama’s administration, is one of three dozen prominent agricultural scientists and economists who have signed a letter opposing the relocation and urging Congress to force USDA to weigh the pros and cons before acting. But she understands Perdue’s political calculus.

“They are two small, research-oriented agencies, and research is not at the top of the agenda for this administration,” Woteki says. “He doesn’t have to worry about pushback from any of the food and agricultural organizations that have the president’s ear.”

Perdue chose a time of transition within the department’s research programs to launch his plan. Ramaswamy’s successor at NIFA, soil scientist Scott Angle, didn’t take office until 29 October. USDA hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed undersecretary for REE, which also oversees the Agricultural Research Service, since Woteki left at the end of the Obama administration. And the same day Perdue announced his relocation strategy, he abruptly transferred the longtime ERS administrator, Mary Bohman, to another USDA agency, leaving an acting administrator at the helm.

Scott Hutchins, an entomologist who retired this fall from Corteva Agriscience, the agricultural division of DowDupont in Indianapolis, was nominated on 16 July as chief scientist and research undersecretary. In his 28 November confirmation hearing, he made it clear that he’s on the same page as his boss regarding the restructuring.

“From what I have read, I believe that the secretary’s goals are the right goals, to be effective, efficient, and customer-focused,” he said. “My priority would be to ensure that the science is not affected and the collaborative spirit [among the agencies] that now exists is not affected.”

Hutchins also assured lawmakers that he’s up to the task. “The experience I’ve had with corporate mergers and closing of facilities and large activities will serve me well,” he said. “Anything can be managed, and this has to be managed well.”

Can Perdue be stopped?

Many scientists hold a decidedly less rosy view. Since Perdue’s announcement, the community has mounted an aggressive campaign to slow the process. They’re hoping sympathetic legislators will put language into a pending spending bill that would prohibit USDA from moving forward without conducting an independent analysis of the impact of the relocation and realignment. If that strategy fails, Plan B is to wait until after a winner is chosen and hope legislators from states who lost out will be more willing to take a critical look at the reshuffling.

In the meantime, the agency’s inspector general is looking into whether USDA has the legal and budget authority to relocate and reorganize NIFA and ERS. “The administration’s motivations for the proposed relocations appear suspicious,” said Representative Steny Hoyer (D–MD) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D–DC), the two Washington, D.C.–area legislators who requested the investigation, which is expected to take several more weeks. “We are also concerned about the harm this proposal would cause to the USDA’s mission and its impact on over 700 federal employees.”

However, the concern expressed by the research community has been partly undermined by the fact that dozens of land-grant universities are now vying to host the two agencies. USDA says it has received interest from 136 communities in 35 states, and many of the applications include a university partner. Many scientists think Perdue is betting that the chance to win such a national competition will neutralize any Democratic opposition in Congress to the relocation. And his strategy seems to be working.

Payne recounts a recent visit to Capitol Hill. “One legislator told me, ‘I share your concern. But I’ve got three applications in from my district and I can’t go up against their interests.’”

Members of Congress aren’t the only ones with divided loyalties. The competition has left many agriculture deans in “an untenable position,” notes a 6 September letter to lawmakers from Payne and other opponents of the move. “Many land-grant administrators will feel obligated to submit [bids] or support state [bids],” the letter notes, even as they “question the impact” of a move on NIFA.

“People should be ashamed of themselves, for all lining up to get this,” says Ramaswamy, now president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in Redmond, Washington. “But I have to hand it to Sonny Perdue. He’s a brilliant tactician, and he knows that politicians are absolutely drooling over the prospect of having hundreds of well-paid federal employees in their district or state.”

Food scientist John Floros can well imagine being caught in that scenario—and what his response would be. As the new president of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Floros has signed onto the most recent letter opposing the move. But until July he was dean of agriculture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, which this fall joined in a bid to host the two agencies.

“If I were still dean at K-State, I probably would have been told that this is going to happen,” Floros explains. “Then I would have been asked, ‘Do you want to be part of it?’ And most likely I would have sent in a proposal.”

Floros and other signers of the letter say one important reason to keep NIFA in Washington, D.C., is so that agricultural scientists and university administrators can visit other federal research agencies at the same time they meet with NIFA program managers. NIFA’s location, they add, also facilitates joint research initiatives between it and other agencies to tackle problems that require a transdisciplinary approach.

Floros also worries that moving NIFA would “perpetuate the myth that agriculture research is somehow separate from the rest of science” and reduce its visibility on the national stage. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he says.

More to the point, this year Trump proposed slashing ERS’s budget by 48%. Such a drastic cut would have cut its 320-person workforce by more than half and eliminated research and statistical analysis relating to rural development, food assistance and nutrition programs, and international food security.

Congressional appropriators rejected those cuts and have proposed a $1 million increase, to $87 million. But many scientists see Perdue’s proposal as a backdoor way to achieve the same reductions—at least in the short term—by assuming that a significant proportion of ERS employees won’t make the move.

“It’s hard to read it as anything other than a way to cut ERS,” says Glauber about Perdue’s plan. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no good rationale for it.”

Source: Science Mag