Ramaswamy opposes moving NIFA out of Washington
August 14, 2018
Sonny Ramaswamy, the former director of the Agriculture Department's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, told The Hagstrom Report today that he is vigorously opposed to the Trump administration's plan announced last week to move NIFA out of Washington.
"I believe the justification to move NIFA fails on all three reasons cited: staff recruitment and retention; bringing NIFA closer to stakeholders; and cost savings," Ramaswamy said, noting he had heard about the plan when a Capitol Hill aide sent him the USDA news release which announced that the staff of the Economic Research Service and NIFA, which makes most of the research grants to land grant universities and other research institutions, would be relocated.
Ramaswamy said he had no problem recruiting talented staff to Washington, that stakeholders come to Washington, and that NIFA will lose key relationships with other government agencies such as the National Science Foundation it is moved. He also said that the two or three years it would take to relocate the agencies would waste a lot of resources.
Over the weekend, Ramaswamy was more colorful in his reaction.
On his Facebook page, he wrote, "Is this dumb and shortsighted or what? The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which supports the most successful and envied research and extension enterprise in the world is being proposed to be basically broken up."
"To paraphrase the inimitable Pres. Reagan imploring Mikhail Gorbachev: 'Tear this proposal down!'"
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Ramaswamy left NIFA in May after six years as director to become president and CEO of Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in Redmond, Wash.
He said in a telephone interview today that farm groups and other stakeholders involved in NIFA need a call to action to oppose the move, but that he cannot be in contact with NIFA because an ethics agreement he signed with the Obama administration when he took the job said he must have a two-year "cooling" off period after leaving the job before contacting the agency.
Although Ramaswamy served the last year and a half of his contract under the Trump administration, the agreement with the Obama administration still applied, he said.
On Thursday, when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the Trump administration plans to "align" the Economic Research Service with the Office of the Chief Economist and move most ERS and NIFA staff outside the Washington area, he said the move makes sense because the high cost of living in Washington makes it difficult to recruit employees, particularly graduates of land-grant colleges.
Perdue said that the move out of Washington would place these "resources" closer to stakeholders.
He also said there would be cost savings in the long run, but also noted that USDA would pay relocation expenses for those employees who wish to stay with the agencies when they move. USDA has asked the Office of Management and Budget for permission to use Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments.
In the interview today, Ramaswamy pointed out that USDA's research programs have been headquartered in Washington since President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862.
"That is where the conversations are, that is where the actions are at," he said.
For many years, Ramaswamy said, agricultural science "was like Rodney Dangerfield — it couldn't get respect," but under the Obama administration, the White House Office of Science had insisted that agriculture would be part of the agendas of other agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department.
At present there are joint research projects between USDA and other agencies on everything from livestock eating patterns to bees to the impact of climate change, he said, and if NIFA moves out of Washington, NIFA will not be at the table in interagency meetings and those relationships will be lost.
"All the stakeholders come to Washington," he said. In addition to visiting NIFA, he said, they visit NSF, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Energy Department to talk about issues such as water that cross agency jurisdictional lines.
"NIFA has to sit at the table" in those discussions, he said.
If NIFA is located in a city where there is a "spectacular" land-grant university and NIFA makes grants to that university, then the other institutions are going to say, "What am I? Chopped liver?," Ramaswamy said.
Ramaswamy said NIFA has served all 50 states and the U.S. islands and the minority-serving institutions. If located outside Washington, there is a danger that places that don't get many grants will complain even more that they are not getting their fair share.
He said Perdue's point that it is hard to recruit staff in Washington is "bogus." During most of the year and a half that he served under the Trump administration, Ramaswamy said, he had to make a case to Perdue or the deputy secretary to fill slots that were empty due to natural attrition such as retirements.
Ramaswamy said he had vacancies in key areas such as data science, plant breeding, livestock and water issues, but again and again he was turned down and told to go back and "reconfigure" how the agency was organized.
When he was allowed to advertise a position, Ramaswamy said, he had "tens if not hundreds" of applications.
There were no unusual departures from NIFA, Ramaswamy said. After Donald Trump was elected president, he said, LGBTQ employees "wept" in his office out of fear for the future, but Ramaswamy said he encouraged them to stay because they were working in an office in which science ruled.
Ramaswamy said that neither he nor the lobbyists who have called him can figure out the Trump administration's goal in relocating NIFA.
As to speculation that the Trump administration might favor more traditional research, Ramaswamy noted that "Monsanto wouldn't be Monsanto with out the funding NIFA and its predecessors" gave to land-grant universities.
Under the Obama administration, there was a push to make scientific research practical and 55 percent of the research money went to applied research and 45 percent to basic research, he said. The farmers and livestock producers were the "most critical stakeholders" and maintaining their profitability during a period of climate change was important, he said.
Noting that he grew up poor in India before coming to graduate school in the United States, Ramaswamy said he is the "beneficiary" of U.S. agricultural research and wants to see the global competiveness of his adopted country maintained.
When he heard the proposal to move NIFA, Ramaswamy said, "The first thing that came to mind is if it ain't broke, don't fix it. It is one hell of a phenomenal organization."