USDA Researchers Seek Help from Union on Restrictions, Relocation

Besides the plan to relocate the Economic Research Service outside Washington, D.C., USDA has also clamped down on the agency’s ability to disseminate its finding through academic journals, a union representative says.

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USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) employees are seeking union representation to help them deal with Trump-administration changes including a restriction on releasing research without clearance from Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office, according to a union representative.

“The agency is trying to restrict how the ERS employees are publishing papers,” said Peter Winch, who works for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

“They have to get an OK from USDA before submitting a paper for publication, is the change as it’s been described to me, whereas before they didn’t have to.”

Winch has been working with ERS employees since late last year to explore the possibility of union representation to help address numerous concerns about how the Trump administration is re-organizing science and research at USDA. ERS employees will vote May 9 on a proposal to join AFGE.

“As professional practitioners in a field, the ERS employees would be able to just send the journal articles in their respective field, and if they were published, that was a sign of the worthiness and merit of their work,” Winch said. “Their peers could tear it apart if it wasn’t done correctly. That’s how science works. Now, that’s a change in the research element at USDA, which would put the ERS researchers more directly under the secretary’s office.”

ERS employees are also concerned about USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s plan to relocate ERS from the Capital region.

ERS conducts research on agricultural economics, rural development, demographics, and a host of other topics. The Daily Yonder frequently uses ERS reports and data.

Former ERS administrator and 29-year employee Katherine (Kitty) Smith Evans shared these concerns in testimony presented to the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee on March 27.

Smith Evans said putting ERS under the supervision of the USDA Chief Economists’ Office instead of its current place within the Research Education and Economics Mission Area of USDA will damage the agency’s scientific credibility.

The change “reduces assurances of the scientific integrity and objectivity of ERS statistics and research, and threatens the accuracy of its critical statistical products,” she said.

In a related move, the Washington Post uncovered a July 2018 memo written by acting USDA chief scientist Chavonda Jacobs-Young mandating that researchers include the following statement in their reports published in scientific journals: “The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.”

Winch, the union representative, said the ERS reorganization is unlike any other he’s seen at USDA. “This move seems designed to be as disruptive as possible, to be very high-handed, to not be democratic in process,” he said. “That’s a trend, really, throughout the Trump administration.”

He said the relocation is occurring “without appropriate Congressional oversight and input, without regard to the lives and families of employees, without a stated reason.”

At the March 27 meeting of the House ag committee, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said USDA had failed to provide a cost-benefit analysis to back up its claims that relocating the agency will save money.

“It’s very unlikely that this move will be a cost savings for the government,” Winch said.

USDA is supposed to announce the relocation plan on May 15, two days after the ERS unionization vote.

AFGE has also submitted a petition of interest for USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture employees to form a union. Winch said the NIFA union vote should occur in late May or June. Like ERS employees, many NIFA employees are likely to be relocated outside of Washington, D.C.

NIFA supports research, education, and extension activities through three primary funding mechanisms – competitive grants, formula grants, and non-competitive grants. “We fund and provide leadership for research, education, and extension programs that address national agricultural priorities,” the NIFA website states.

In written statements, Secretary Perdue has said moving NIFA and ERS save money and put the agencies closer to “stakeholders.”

“Relocation will help ensure that USDA is the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and move our resources closer to our customers,” Perdue said, according to a March 12 press release.

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