With USDA’s Decision to Move Research Units to Kansas City Region, ASA Continues to Advocate for Integrity of USDA Science and Evidence-Based Policymaking

With USDA’s recent announcement that the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will be relocated to the Kansas City region, ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein, issued this statement:

Secretary Perdue is well on his way to dismantling a federal statistical agency that is one of the best agricultural economics research institutions in the world, having yet to provide a single justifiable reason for doing so. Today’s decision is a big win for Kansas City and the immediate geographical area, but it comes at too great a cost for the nation. National policy is made in Washington, DC. It is common sense that these ERS and NIFA, so vital to informing food and agriculture policy, should be located where national policy is made.

We understand the appeal of moving federal jobs from Washington to help the economies of other regions of the US. However, helping a local economy should not come at the expense of scientific research and evidence-based policymaking for food, agriculture, and rural economies more broadly.

We all pay for a dismantled Economic Research Service that will never get back to its current number-three ranking in the world for agricultural economics research. The relocation disrupts the quality, breadth, and timeliness of ERS’ reports on topics ranging from trade and farm income to nutrition assistance and commodity projections to rural economies and food safety. Being located outside DC also means it will be far removed from its primary audiences and collaborators, not to mention the rich talent pool so appealing to Amazon for its new headquarters. Such setbacks will affect the work of ERS in the long run.

We will also pay for USDA’s research funding agency being dissociated from the planning and collaborations that happen in person in Washington with funding agencies for health, energy, international development, basic research, and more. The interdisciplinary research NIFA coordinates with the other agencies is especially important to ensuring we keep a growing population fed and nourished on existing farmland.

USDA’s cost-benefit analysis is, in reality, a post-hoc justification for their move, showing cost-savings for rent. What it will not show is the bigger savings that could have been achieved by moving the agencies into USDA-owned spaces in the National Capital Region. Its analysis is also unlikely to show the additional costs of doing business from two locations. Leadership and staff will have to travel between the two locations in addition to the locations they currently visit. There will also be the additional costs for the ERS and NIFA stakeholders who will need to travel to Kansas City in addition to DC. One should also consider the costs already noted of the likely effects to the quality, breadth, and timeliness of the agencies’ work.

Finally, we are deeply concerned for the integrity of USDA science. Secretary Perdue’s relocations of ERS and NIFA and realignment of ERS appear, at least, to disregard the work of ERS and NIFA and, at worst, as an attempt to undermine their work. The secretary’s budget requests to slash ERS funding indicate a desire to undercut the work of ERS. USDA’s requirement that its scientists label their journal-published work as “preliminary”—finally reversed last month after an outcry—also seems more an attempt to undermine USDA science than good policy. If Secretary Perdue had consulted with scientific leaders and experts before announcing his ERS and NIFA plans or had made course corrections since, perhaps we wouldn’t be as concerned for USDA scientific integrity. Our concerns would also likely be lessened if there were a Senate-confirmed—with broad bipartisan support—chief scientist in place at USDA. Without checks in place for the integrity of science at USDA, we thank the US House for its efforts to stop Secretary Perdue’s ERS/NIFA moves and call on the US Senate to protect the integrity of USDA science and evidence-based policymaking.

The June 13 announcement also revealed the USDA will not move forward with its realignment plans: “The agency of ERS will remain under the Research, Education, and Economics mission area.” The ASA welcomes this decision and will continue to advocate for ERS and NIFA to be kept in the National Capital Region to best inform evidence-based policymaking and serve agricultural research.

See the ASA’s press release on the release:  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.