ASA Continues Advocacy for Evidence-Based Policymaking, Scientific Integrity at USDA

A principal federal statistical agency and a national scientific research institute in the US Department of Agriculture will both move from Washington, DC, to the Kansas City region this year, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced June 13, after nearly a year of controversial deliberation.

The plan will relocate most staff of the Economic Research Service (ERS)—which provides research and analysis on food, agriculture, and related topics—and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—which funds agricultural research around the country—by the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30.

As part of its advocacy for federal statistical agencies and evidence-based policymaking, the ASA has actively opposed this relocation by the USDA, citing the sidestepping of both congressional authority and expert input, a lack of transparency and justification, and the detrimental effects on the agencies’ missions and operations.

The plan to move these agencies has been controversial since it was first announced last August. In recent months, employees of both agencies voted to unionize in response, congressional hearings were held to debate the merits of the plan, and the House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2020 that would block the moves. When the USDA invited so-called “expressions of interest” in response to the plan, they received 136 responses within only two months.

The move will directly affect the welfare of several hundred federal employees and their families, including many researchers. At the ERS, only 80 employees out of more than 300 will be allowed to remain in DC; at NIFA, only 20 out of more than 350 will remain in the area.

Affected employees were given one month to choose either to relocate by a September 30 deadline or to “be separated by adverse action procedures.” If employees choose to relocate, they face the difficult decision of choosing a new home in the three-county Kansas City region without knowing the actual address they’ll need to report to for work. Choosing not to relocate would essentially amount to an employment dismissal (with a possibly expensive appeal process) and could make future federal employment more difficult.

Both agencies are experiencing problematic attrition that is expected to increase as the relocation proceeds despite a chorus of opposition, including those from the more than 175 organizations who recently wrote Congress to oppose this issue. The agency’s federal union representatives also recently determined as many as four out of five ERS employees will not make the move. Similarly concerning numbers are reported for NIFA, raising questions about the agency’s ability to effectively execute its mission of distributing millions of dollars in funding each year to universities across the country.

In May, the US House of Representatives included strong language in its FY20 appropriations bill to block the ERS and NIFA relocation. The Senate has not yet released its draft spending package, but the USDA is nevertheless bypassing Congress by moving forward with the relocation well before lawmakers resolve their FY20 appropriations deliberations.

In mid-June, USDA dropped its plans to shift administrative oversight of ERS from the USDA’s chief scientist to its chief economist; this move was criticized as jeopardizing the agency’s mandate to be objective and impartial in its analysis and reporting, since the chief economist in part supports the economic policy positions of the secretary.

The opposition to the planned moves by the ASA is not specific to the choice of Kansas City, but is focused on a flawed and rushed process that has ignored concerns from congressional lawmakers and expert stakeholders while simultaneously disregarding highly trained federal employees. Moreover, the motivation for the moves is worrying, particularly given the USDA’s proposals to slash the ERS budget and the USDA scientists’ previous direction to label their peer-reviewed research as “preliminary.”

For elaboration on the ASA’s opposition, refer to this June 13 press release reacting to USDA’s announcement of KC as its choice for the new location: American Statistical Association Maintains Agriculture Secretary Perdue’s Upheaval of USDA Research Arm Not in the Best Interest of Rural America, US Food and Agriculture.

The press interest in the USDA moves has grown considerably in recent months. To both illustrate that press interest and summarize other recent developments, we share hyperlinked article titles from the last few months:

As noted above, the opposition to USDA’s relocations of the two research agencies has been broad and vocal. The following op-eds help to illustrate the point from a variety of perspectives:

The ASA continues its advocacy for the strength and independence of both agencies and the integrity of science at USDA.