Q&A: Science Group Calls Relocation of USDA Research Agencies ‘Irrational’

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is trying to move two USDA research agencies – the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture – out of Washington, D.C., and cut their funding in half. The proposals raise concerns from research advocacy organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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The Trump administration has failed to make the economic and programmatic case for moving two agriculture and rural research agencies out of Washington, D.C., raising concerns that the Department of Agriculture may have other reasons for the changes, says a government affairs officer for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The burden of proof is on [Secretary of Agriculture] Sonny Perdue,” said Mike Lavender, senior manager of government affairs for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They haven’t given any substantive justification. None.”

The proposal would move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) out of the District of Columbia. The president’s budget recommendation for 2020 would also cut funding for the two agencies in half.

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The USDA says the relocation proposal would cut expenses and put researchers closer to constituents. But Lavender says USDA has not proven the current location of the research agencies actually creates any problems that need to be solved.

“If you’re going to restructure, you have to prove why that would be a good thing,” Lavender said. “They haven’t done that. And, quite frankly, there aren’t problems with how [the Economic Research Service] has been operating. There aren’t problems with how [National Institute of Food and Agriculture] has been operating.”

ERS conducts research on agricultural economics, rural development, demographics, and a host of other topics. NIFA focuses on the economic and social impact of the American food system.

This is the third straight year – and the second while Perdue has held the position of secretary – that the Trump administration’s budget proposal has recommended significant cuts in research and other USDA programs.

A House subcommittee on Ag appropriations recently held a hearing on the proposed relocation of ERS and NIFA. Lavender at the Union of Concerns Scientists attended the hearing.

The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates interviewed Lavender to get his response to the hearing and the topic of rural and agricultural research

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(Photo via U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Bryce Oates: Is there anything to like about the president’s proposed budget, specifically regarding the restructuring ERS and NIFA?

Mike Lavender: There could be things to potentially like about the proposal, but there’s no detail, no clarity about the process. That is where USDA has really botched this up. They could have earned much more good will by just following basic protocols on how to roll something like this out. Present your case if you have justifications. Share those justifications. Share your data. Share your reasoning for wanting to do this. All of these are rational things that would occur to anyone wanting to make such a change. USDA has none of this. That is why this whole conversation and process is so problematic.

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To your question about what we might like, it’s very possible that there are valid reasons. If they had shown us the case, if they had built the case for how this would improve agricultural research, then maybe there would be potential. USDA has built no case. It’s not there. From our perspective, we want to invest more in agricultural research. We understand that farmers, ranchers, fisherfolk, eaters are experiencing challenges, especially on the grower’s side. That includes climate and weather volatility, change in trade markets. We need to invest in stability for our growers. The biggest question we have about this whole proposal is will it improve ag research, will it advance ag research? That is something USDA hasn’t been able to answer. They haven’t given any answer.

Oates: USDA seems to be avoiding this question. Is that an accurate portrayal?

Lavender: At the hearing last week, the person testifying for USDA was Kristi Boswell, the senior policy adviser. She was point blank asked why this administration didn’t include reasoning for advancing ag research as part of the rational for their NIFA and ERS proposals. That should be a very easy question to answer. Instead, she gave a verbatim reiteration of the talking points USDA had included in their August press release from last year. That is: 1) save taxpayers money; 2) move these institutions out of D.C. and closer to stakeholders; and 3) retain more highly qualified staff.

The problem with reiterating those justifications is that those are the things that USDA hasn’t proved actually need fixing. They have not proven anything with real data, with any data. They’re not actually answering the question. That is where we, if you’re looking at all of this restructuring happening, in the context of the all three budgets the Trump administration has produced, the last two with Secretary Sonny Perdue, have proposed gutting ag research. They have proposed to discontinue research on rural economies, on food safety, nutrition programs, conservation programs. Intent plays a role in this. The further out we get with the process, still moving forward with a lack of clarity on USDA’s justifications, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that maybe the intent behind this isn’t to improve ag research.

Oates: The Secretary of Agriculture stood in front of USDA’s National Agriculture Outlook Forum last month and talked about how important agriculture research and science are to this administration. The budget proposals, as you’re pointing out, do the opposite.

Lavender: Look, you gotta walk the walk. You can’t just talk the talk. People will cast this aside and say that Congress makes it a habit of ignoring president’s budget, especially this one. There is a grain of truth to that, and we’re very thankful that Congress didn’t make many of these cuts. But we shouldn’t just be letting the USDA shrug off, well, yes, we’ve proposed millions of dollars of cuts to research programs, and that doesn’t really matter much. That does matter. That does tell us what they think, what priorities they have for USDA.

Again, look at the budget details. They proposed to discontinue ERS research on things like nutrition assistance, food safety, rural economies, invasive species, drought resilience, beginning farmers and ranchers. The list goes on and on. The things they want USDA to continue researching are farm business, cost of production, household income and wealth and farm practice adoption. So there’s four things they want to keep. That’s it. All of the other things, food consumption and trends, local and regional food markets, concentration, rural economies, stop looking at those.

Oates: So let’s switch this around. Let me ask the question this way. Can you make the case for keeping NIFA and ERS is DC?

Lavender: I actually think that’s the wrong way to look at. Because if you’re looking at the situation as it stands today, we’re talking about large, effective institution that does world-class ag research and does it very, very well, with so many talented staff. If you are moving that agency and you’ve chosen to do so without any stakeholder input, the burden of proof is on you. The burden of proof is on USDA. The burden of proof is on Sonny Perdue. They haven’t given any substantive justification. None. If you’re going to restructure, you have to prove why that would be a good thing. They haven’t done that. And, quite frankly, there aren’t problems with how ERS has been operating. There aren’t problems with how NIFA has been operating.

Oates: In this week’s Senate hearing on Department of Interior secretary nominee David Bernhardt, he and Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) discussed a similar proposal to move the Bureau of Land Management offices out West, perhaps to Colorado. This seems to be an administration wide approach to moving offices out into the field. Does this approach limit policymaker access to the scientists and researchers.

Lavender: It’s logical to want to put government closest to the people it serves. However, one thing that is under-appreciated about this whole discussion, I spent some time one afternoon drawing a 300-mile radius around Washington, D.C. Within that zone, there are eight land-grant institutions. There are five [1862] institutions [which received support through the federal Morrill Act]. I would challenge you to perform the same test with any of the other locations [that bid on housing ERS]. Is there anywhere with a greater density of researchers and scientists in the country? Some places might come close. But I challenge you to find anywhere that exceeds this level. That begs the question, which stakeholders are we talking about? Why are some stakeholders more important than others? That’s where we get back into intent. I think it just boils to this: this reorganization proposal doesn’t add up. There has been no outcry for the stakeholder community in recent years for this. I have never heard it, and I work on these issues. It’s never been a thing.

Look, at a time when China is growing and investing more in science, more in research, why do we want to jeopardize our leading position in ag research? Why are we putting our farmers and ranchers in further jeopardy? This is the time we need to be doubling down in their best interest. This proposal fails that test.

Oates: USDA is getting a lot of pushback on the relocation proposal.

Lavender: Yes. There have been requests from the chair and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee for more clarity. That clarity has gone mostly unanswered from USDA. There has been bipartisan opposition to this proposal. Through the FY2019 budget process that we’re operating under now, there has been language asking for more detail and clarity. USDA is not acknowledging that. Bipartisan USDA agency heads, chief scientists, high-ranking officials from universities around the country, dozens of them from all over the country. That’s on top of the more than 1,100 scientists from all over the country who have directly requested that this profile not go any further. There is broad and deep opposition. USDA and Sonny Perdue have heard of that, and they’re disregarding it. This is not how things should be done if we want to solve problems and get things done for rural America.

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