Moving the Department of Agriculture’s primary research team outside Washington, D.C., will create more problems than it solves, according to a report from a group that represents “the world’s largest community of statisticians.”
“The reasons [given by Secretary Sonny Perdue for relocating the Economic Research Service] are generally found to be lacking in substance or evidence, or needing additional and independent study,” the report from the American Statistical Association says. “Indeed, it remains unclear what problems the USDA seeks to address with their plans.”
Perdue this summer announced plans to restructure and relocate the Economic Research Service. The Washington D.C.-based institution is ranked as the third most important agricultural economics research organization in the world. Its research is comprehensive and exhaustive, covering technical agricultural topics, demographics, social-wellbeing indicators, and more. Also involved in the relocation plan is another USDA research institution based in Washington, D.C., the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Perdue has said moving the agencies will save money, retain employees, and put researchers closer to “stakeholders.”
The American Statistical Association – a private organization with members representing industry, government and academia – says the USDA’s rationale for the relocation is contradictory and lacks evidence.
“The alleged problems being addressed seem minor, nonexistent, or unsubstantiated,” according to the report. “Similarly, any possible benefits are asserted without support. Meanwhile, the disruptions that would likely result to ERS work are clear and would have ramifications for at least the next decade.”
Last week the American Statistical Association sent a letter to House and Senate agriculture leadership asking Congress to restrict USDA from spending any funding to relocate the Economic Research Service. The farm bill, which funds ERS along with the rest of USDA’s programs, is in conference committee, and it’s uncertain whether it will be approved before the new Congress convenes in January. The bill currently contains no restrictions on USDA’s ability to relocate ERS.
The bulk of the American Statistical Association report is a point-by-point rebuttal of the benefits USDA sees in relocating the research agency. Some of those arguments include the following:
In response to a query from the Daily Yonder, USDA sent the following statement (which it also provided to other media last week):
“The planned move of ERS and NIFA has generated great enthusiasm around the country, as 136 parties in 35 states have formally expressed interest in hosting the agencies. USDA is undertaking the relocations for a variety of reasons. The move will place important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington, D.C. area. Additionally, taxpayers will realize significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. Finally, the plan will improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.”
The Daily Yonder routinely republishes reports generated by the Economic Research Service and uses ERS data in its reporting. In recent months, ERS reports and data have been used in Daily Yonder stories on the impact of school nutrition programs, demographic characteristics of rural veterans, rural employment patterns, the relationship of farm size to federal farm support, rural economic innovation, and changes in U.S. population trends. The most recent ERS publication is the 2018 edition of “Rural America at a Glance,” a reference brochure with commonly cited data on employment, population, agricultural production, and other economic and demographic data.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.