ASA Decries USDA Undermining of Federal Statistical Agency, Evidence-Based Policymaking

Highlights unique and critical role of government statistics in society

 The American Statistical Association (ASA) Board of Directors issued December 3 a rare statement of concern regarding the US Department of Agriculture’s plans for the Economic Research Service (ERS), a federal statistical agency. “Moving the ERS outside of the nation’s capital and having it in the secretary’s office undermines evidence-based policymaking in the food, agriculture, and rural sectors of our economy and society,” says ASA President Lisa LaVange. “If relocated, it is likely to take years for ERS to rebuild its staff and programs to the same high [level of] quality it is now.”

The statement frames the concern for ERS as one of two USDA federal statistical agencies and 13 OMB-designated federal statistical agencies whose products are the foundation of US evidence-based policymaking and data-driven decision-making. The document punctuates their importance by quoting a National Academy of Sciences document, Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency: “The reason for a statistical agency to exist is to serve as a trustworthy source of objective, relevant, accurate, and timely information for decision-makers, analysts, and others—both inside and outside the government—to help them understand present conditions, draw comparisons with the past, and guide plans for the future.”

“Just as the US has a physical infrastructure supporting our commerce, security, health, and everyday lives, we have a data infrastructure supporting decisions and policies across an equally broad swath,” adds LaVange. “Because the data from the federal statistical agencies are the gold standard of objective, timely data in their respective sectors, they are the bedrock of the US data infrastructure. Weakening our data infrastructure weakens or forestalls decisions and policymaking. This is why federal statistical agencies play such a unique and vital role in our country and why we should be doing our utmost to protect their functioning and integrity.”

The ASA Board’s statement is the latest in a long line of broad opposition by USDA stakeholders to USDA’s plans. Last week, USDA chief scientists under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama spent two days lobbying Congress in a follow-up to a letter to Congress signed by them and 19 other current and former university agricultural heads. In October, 56 former USDA and federal statistical agency officials spanning five decades expressed their opposition to the plan in a letter to Congress. The chief statistician of the United States for 24 years, Katherine Wallman, was one of the letter’s signers and commented, “The USDA's dismantling of the Economic Research Service is the biggest threat to a federal statistical agency in many years.”

There have also been numerous letters sent to Congress by individual organizations and coalitions, the latest one dated November 13 and signed by 60 organizations urging congressional appropriators to prohibit USDA from using FY19 funding for the move and relocation.

Read the ASA press release for details.