Economic Research Service: Reliable Information’s Last Stand?
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says he will reorganize and move the Economic Research Service to create cost savings and help staff retention. Advocates criticize the measure as an effort to curtail the independence of the agency and to inject more politics into what should be objective research.
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last week that he will move the USDA Economic Research Service out of Washington, D.C., and place the agency under the management of USDA Office of the Chief Economist. Also involved in the reorganization and relocation is the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, another research agency.
The Daily Yonder uses material from the Economic Research Service routinely. We republish ERS research reports or quote from them extensively. We refer to their background articles on topics like rural population, poverty, farm income, natural resources, nutrition and more. The ERS “Rural America at a Glance” and “The Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America” are standard references in the field of rural policy.
There is no comparable public source of information about the economic and social conditions of rural America.
The USDA communications office says that moving the center to another location will reduce the cost of operations, make it easier to attract staff, and put researchers in closer contact with “stakeholders.” Critics say the change is an effort to shake up the research agency and diminish ERS’s role in providing data that informs decision making. They also say that moving ERS into the Office of the Chief Economist (where it was located once before) will increase the political pressure placed on the agency’s researchers.
The Daily Yonder has compiled comments about the ERS and FINA changes. The responses have come directly to the Daily Yonder or been gleaned from other media reports, as noted.
Moving Rural Voices Out of Earshot
“ERS’ main customers are Congressional members and staff; USDA policy officials; and researchers at rural-focused groups like the [Housing Assistance Council] or the agriculture and food industry associations. We already work in a system built to lift suburban and urban interests. Moving ERS out of D.C. is yet another way rural voices will be out of earshot. Rural communities already struggle to have their voices heard. Why make it any harder for their representatives in D.C. to impact federal policy-making?
“I would be interested to see the Department’s analysis of the cost savings. I hope the savings are big enough to justify disrupting this rural resource.”
David Lipsetz, Housing Assistance Council
Where Are the Cost-Savings Estimates?
“We are deeply troubled that, like his decision to eliminate the Undersecretary for Rural Development, Secretary Perdue has proposed major changes at [USDA] without any public input, including from farmers or rural residents. The secretary talks a lot about ‘customer service,’ but he should explain what ‘customers’ he consulted with in this latest re-organization. The secretary claims there will be cost savings, but offers no estimates for how much. There is no clarity on where staff and agencies will move, how that decision will be made, or the costs associated with such a move.
“When considering the major cuts proposed by the Trump administration to the USDA earlier this year, including a 50 percent cut at the Economic Research Service, it is hard not to view this as another attempt to weaken the research and scientific capacity of [USDA]. Farmers and the rural economy depend on economic reports and analysis from ERS. NIFA is a critical research institution for helping farmers tackle future challenges. We need to fully understand the implications of geographically separating critical research from the policy agencies of USDA. The secretary should provide additional details (including cost estimates) for this plan and seek public input from farmers and rural residents before making these major changes.”
Ben Lilliston, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
Critics Need to Use Evidence
On the reorganization: “ERS already spent time under its proposed new organizational structure in a past reorganization, so while the reorganization may be disruptive to my friends at ERS, we have no reason to believe it represents a demise for the organization.”
On the move from Washington: “Economists are trained to study tradeoffs, to compare benefits and costs, to find policies that maximize social welfare by equating the changes in benefits and costs from policy changes. Whether dispersing federal workers more evenly around the country is a beneficial policy or not must be studied on a case-by-case basis and I don’t claim to know the answer in the case of these two USDA agencies. However, it has been successful before and should not be criticized reflexively without some evidence to back up such opposition.”
Jeffrey Dorfman, economics professor, University of Georgia, in Forbes.
Disruption “at a Critical Moment”
“For decades, the Economic Research Service has provided fact based, definitive research on agricultural, economic, demographic and social conditions in rural America. They have done so through the efforts of their own capable staff and through their competitive research grants to leading rural scholars at major universities. ERS research is highly regarded, broadly disseminated and widely used in policy, academic, non-profit and business environments. Any actions which disrupt the important work of the ERS will have a detrimental effect on the people, places and institutions of rural America at a critical moment in American history.”
Kenneth Johnson, Andrew Carnegie Fellow and Senior Demographer, Carsey School, University of New Hampshire.
Restructuring Won’t Affect Independence
On the move to reporting to the Office of the Chief Economist: “It is really important to maintain that independence [but] I don’t think the independence is compromised by reporting to a chief economist.”
On moving ERS out of Washington, D.C.: “My fear is it will just result in a big loss of personnel.. [It] just doesn’t make a lot of sense for future chief economists to have to travel hundreds of miles to visit their new employees.”
Joseph Glauber, USDA Chief Economist, 2007-14 as quoted in Government Executive
“The Last Stand of Reliable Information”?
“Once the American chestnut was everywhere. The national canopy. Now there is one last stand of those trees in rural Wisconsin that has survived the blight. ERS may be the last stand of reliable information in this government that has not been nudged, fudged, or sawed up for some special interest. You can trust the work product from ERS. You can’t always say that about other parts of the government.”
Dee Davis, President, Center for Rural Strategies and Publisher, Daily Yonder
“An Essential Resource”
“For years we’ve depended upon ERS to examine realities and trends in rural America that were deemed too unimportant (or inconvenient) to pursue by other agencies. ERS illuminated deep inequities across zip codes, quantifying the truth of childhood and generational poverty and the lack of philanthropic support in rural places. For those of us working to right these wrongs, ERS has been an essential resource.”
Whitney Kimball Coe, Coordinator, National Rural Assembly (The National Rural Assembly is a project of the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder)
Integrity and Autonomy
“Data collection must be objective and free from political interference. Bringing ERS closer to the direct supervision of a political appointee could potentially limit the integrity and autonomy of agency research. The USDA’s proposal would also literally distance scientists from the department’s decision-making process at a time when farmers, ranchers and eaters face significant challenges. Evidence-based research must be at the very center of the USDA’s mission.”
Ricardo Salvador, Union of Concerned Scientists, from a statement released via the web
Move the Public Relations Office, Too
“DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton also has another cost-savings opportunity to suggest to Agriculture Secretary Perdue. USDA hasn’t announced any plans to move its press and public relations department out of Washington. … However, it’s important to note St. Louis is the hub of agricultural public affairs, media relations and advertising agencies. There likely could be significant cost savings by eliminating the direct hiring of more costly, politically-charged press staffers and instead contracting that work out to multiple public-relations agencies in St. Louis that are well-versed in working with media on agricultural topics.
“It’s just one more idea to help improve customer service.”
From an August 10 article in DTN under the bylines of Jerry Hagstrom and Chris Clayton
A Bold-Faced Attempt to Restrict the Flow of Information
“Moving skilled USDA ERS and NIFA employees out of Washington, D.C., and under the supervision of the Office of the [Chief Economist] politicizes, and therefore fundamentally endangers our country’s capacity for agricultural research and development. The reasons provided for this decision are meritless: moving the agencies put them at risk for losing experienced, high-level employees; does nothing to improve the agencies’ responsiveness to rural stakeholders; and in the end will cost taxpayers by reducing the productiveness of two hubs of national ag research. Plain and simple, this is not a move in service of improved ag research capacity, rural stakeholders, or taxpayers writ large – rather, it is a bold-faced move to restrict and control the dissemination of information, one that in the end will weaken our farmers’ ability to compete at home and abroad.”
Juli Obudzinski, Deputy Policy Director, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition