Critics Of Relocating USDA Research Agencies Point To Brain Drain

Sep 10, 2019
Originally published on September 13, 2019 5:39 pm

This June the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its plan to move two of its research agencies out of Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area. Most of the people working at the agencies have since quit, leaving gaping holes in critical divisions. Researchers warn that the agency upheaval will starve farmers, policymakers and ultimately consumers out of the best possible information about food and the business of growing it.

USDA is taking the Economic Research Service and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, splitting them up, and moving most of the workforce halfway across the country. ERS tracks the vast, global food production business, and its data drive markets and investments that shape agriculture. NIFA funds agricultural research at universities across the country.

Both agencies are widely considered the best in the world at what they do, but they have also come in for some rough treatment under the Trump administration, according to Laura Dodson, an ERS economist who is also acting vice president of the union representing that agency's employees.

"If you eat, you're involved in agriculture. And this is the government making itself dumber about agriculture," Dodson says.

Rebecca Boehm, an economist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says both agencies are under assault.

"This is really about an attack on science and an attack on agencies that produce objective research and information in the public interest," Boehm says.

The tension at NIFA and ERS didn't start with the move. President Trump's proposed budgets have all suggested deep cuts in the agencies. Boehm says USDA began suppressing politically sensitive findings after Trump took office.

"They've buried studies on climate change and how climate change will impact farmers. They buried studies on a climate science plan that was supposed to be released. And they buried a study ... showing the positive benefits from updated nutrition standards for school meals," Boehm says.

So when the USDA announced that it would move ERS and NIFA out of Washington, forcing a choice of either relocating — in many cases uprooting families to do it — or keeping their jobs, many in both agencies saw an effort to tear down the agencies.

The union representing them says fewer than 25% of employees facing a move will actually make it. More than 250 ERS and NIFA employees have already quit, and the union expects others to follow before the Sept. 30 deadline for reporting to work in the Kansas City area.

On the other hand, supporters of the move say they see an opportunity to strengthen ERS and NIFA.

Like many farm state congressmen, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has worked to protect funding for ERS and NIFA. He says both agencies do vital work and that moving federal agriculture research to greater Kansas City and potentially to his state makes great sense.

For one thing, office rent and the cost of living are much lower, so USDA could see a cost savings. Kansas City already hosts tens of thousands of federal employees, including thousands working for USDA.

And Blunt says research work already being done in the area complements the agencies' mission.

"Locating [NIFA and ERS in greater Kansas City] within three hours of eight or 10 of the greatest land institutions in the country. There are more plant scientists within 100 miles of St. Louis than anywhere else in the world. The Animal Health Corridor [in greater Kansas City]. ... I think the resources here more than offset any short-term loss in people who were frankly well along in their career anyway," Blunt says.

But scores of highly skilled people with deep knowledge in arcane fields of study can be tough to replace.

"All of that expertise is gone. The people that are left are having to work double duty, triple duty," says Tom Bewick, a national program leader at NIFA and one of the few making the move to Kansas City. His wife will stay to put to keep her job in Virginia, and he'll take a $5,000 pay cut.

"A number of us have decided that we're going to, uh, accept the relocation to make sure that NIFA's legacy as this preeminent science organization is not completely lost," Bewick says.

Meantime, the USDA is struggling to fill hundreds of open jobs. It's also offering recent retirees half their previous salary to become temps. The Economic Research Service is shedding projects. Research funding may be delayed, even canceled. And agency supporters say it will take years to rebuild the government's agricultural research agencies.

Correction: 9/11/19

A previous version of this story misspelled Tom Bewick's last name as Brewick.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Earlier this summer, we reported on two USDA research agencies moving out of Washington. Since then, those agencies, which track almost everything related to growing and eating food, have shrunk dramatically. The union representing employees says three out of four of them will likely be gone by the end of the year. And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, the loss may be costly.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Across the farming industry this year, you hear grumblings that research coming out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn't quite what it used to be.

JASON BRITT: I - it makes you wonder.

MORRIS: Jason Britt, a commodities trader, sits behind a bank of monitors arrayed on his huge, ornate, old desk in Kansas City. These days, Britt says some of the information coming out of USDA has been contradictory. That's troubling because USDA data is ag industry bedrock.

BRITT: They are definitely the gold standard for, you know, setting prices. And that's why it's, you know, so vital that we do get the most accurate information, you know, possible.

MORRIS: Enormous amounts of money ride on USDA reports. So do sweeping policy decisions that shape American diets, economic productivity and the environment. But the federal agencies in charge of funding and conducting much of that research are in upheaval.

LAURA DODSON: People are booking it because people are scared about what's going to happen to them working here.

MORRIS: Laura Dodson is an economist at the Economic Research Service, or ERS, one of the agencies being uprooted. She's also acting vice president of the employees union there. ERS tracks the vast global food production system. The other agency being moved is the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, or NIFA. NIFA funds ag research at universities across the country.

Rebecca Boehm at the Union of Concerned Scientists says both agencies are under assault.

REBECCA BOEHM: This is really an attack on science and an attack on agencies that produce objective research and information in the public interest.

MORRIS: Boehm says research findings on climate change and nutrition programs provoked the Trump administration, which moved repeatedly to slash the agency's budgets. Then, this summer, the USDA announced that most positions in both agencies would be moving from Washington to greater Kansas City by fall.

Politicians here in Kansas City boasted that more than 550 high-paying jobs were coming to town. It hasn't worked out that way. Most of the employees quit, and Dodson says that will hurt both farmers and consumers.

DODSON: If you eat, you're involved in agriculture. And this is the government making itself dumber about agriculture.

MORRIS: Now, that is not the way supporters of the move see it. The USDA maintains that moving the agencies to Kansas City will save lots of money. Missouri Senator Roy Blunt says the Kansas City region is a great fit because of all the ag research going on here already.

ROY BLUNT: Locating yourself right here within three hours of eight or 10 of the greatest land-grant institutions in the country, the Animal Health Corridor here, I think the resources here more than offset any short-term loss in people that were likely well-along in their career anyway.

MORRIS: But scores of highly skilled people with deep knowledge in arcane fields of study can be tough to replace. Whole divisions within agencies have been decimated.

TOM BEWICK: So all of that expertise is gone. The people that are left are having to work, you know, double duty, triple duty.

MORRIS: Tom Bewick should know. He's a national program leader at NIFA, one of the few making the move to Kansas City. His wife will stay put to keep her job in Virginia, and he'll take a $5,000 pay cut.

BEWICK: A number of us have decided that we're going to accept the relocation to make sure that NIFA's legacy as this preeminent science organization is not completely lost.

MORRIS: Meantime, the USDA is struggling to fill hundreds of open jobs. It's offering recent retirees half their previous salary to become temps. The Economic Research Service is shedding projects. Research funding may be delayed, even canceled. And agency supporters say it will take years to rebuild the government's world-class economic research agencies.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CFCF'S "LETTERS HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.