USDA narrows NIFA, ERS relocation city list, but critics still opposed
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the list of cities to which the Trump administration wants to relocate most of the employees in the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food Agriculture has been narrowed from 136 to 67.
But the American Statistical Association that represents stakeholders, including current ERS and NIFA employees, said the announcement is still “disappointing” because neither employees nor former agency heads have been consulted.
“The announcement of this middle list shows that we are committed to the important missions of these agencies and transparency in our selection process. USDA will make the best choice for our employees and customers,” Perdue said.
“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.”
In making up the list, USDA considered travel requirements, labor force statistics and work hours most compatible with all USDA office schedules, the secretary said.
But Ron Wasserstein, executive director of ASA said, “We’re disappointed to see USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue persisting in his plans to uproot the USDA research arm, despite the overwhelming concerns of its former leaders and the greater statistical and agricultural research community.“
“The USDA leadership developed their plans without consulting any of the agency’s current or former research and statistical heads or the broader research community,” Wasserstein said. “With that community now having strongly voiced its concerns and opposition, USDA seems intent to proceed without course corrections.”
“We thank Congress for expressing its concerns and seeking clarity from USDA for both the rationale and the costs and impacts of the ERS/NIFA move,” said 2019 ASA President Karen Kafadar.
“Regrettably, USDA’s announcement today dismisses the input from ERS/NIFA’s customers and stakeholders, primarily policy- and decision-makers,” Kafadar said.
“We continue to believe that this move is not only costly to U.S. taxpayers but removes ERS from its critical mission, ‘to conduct high-quality, objective economic research to inform and enhance public and private decision-making.’
“We strongly urge Congress to halt USDA’s plans to move ERS/NIFA to protect the research and statistical foundations of our food, agricultural and rural economies,” Kafadar said.
“There is good news in today’s announcement: The many critics in the non-listed communities can now speak more freely,” added Wasserstein.
Others in the community also reacted to the announcement.
Gale Buchanan, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary in the George W. Bush administration, pointed out, “USDA has yet to address two basic questions: What are the problems they are proposing to fix?
How will the proposal make the agricultural research system better?”
“I’m confident the reason these questions go unanswered is the moves don’t fix a problem and the system won’t be improved,” Buchanan said. “USDA’s announcement is another step in the wrong direction.”
Catherine Woteki, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary in the Barack Obama administration, added her concern in light of the precipitous drops of ERS and NIFA in the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.
“The rankings drop and the reports of high attrition rates trickling out in recent months are very troubling,” Woteki said.
“They are, however, only a fraction of the eventual rankings drop and brain drain expected by an actual move to one of the middle-list locations. It’s time for the USDA to listen to its employees and the outside expert and stakeholder community to withdraw their ill-advised plans.”
“The foundation of sound government decision-making is good information,” said Susan Offutt, administrator of ERS under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“By not consulting all the members of the community who value ERS and by not examining the costs and benefits of the plan for relocation and realignment in a systematic analysis, the department shreds its credibility by insisting it has made the right decision without considering all the evidence,” Offutt said.
The mini-bus of the appropriations bill that funds the Agriculture Department through Sept. 30 contained report language urging USDA not to move quickly and to provide Congress with reports on its plans. ❖
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