STATISTICAL ASSN: UPHEAVAL OF USDA AGENCIES NOT IN THE BEST INTEREST OF RURAL AMERICA, FOOD, AG
Jun. 14, 2019
Source: American Statistical Assn news release
The USDA's announcement yesterday that the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will be relocated to Kansas City, the executive director of the American Statistical Association (ASA), Ron Wasserstein, issued this statement:
Secretary Perdue is well on his way to dismantling a federal statistical agency that is one of the best agricultural economics research institutions in the world, having yet to provide a single justifiable reason for doing so. Today's decision is a big win for Kansas City and the immediate geographical area, but it comes at too great a cost for the nation. National policy is made in Washington, D.C. It is common sense that these ERS and NIFA, so vital to informing food and agriculture policy, should be located where national policy is made.
We understand the appeal of moving federal jobs from Washington to help the economies of other regions of the U.S.. However, helping a local economy should not come at the expense of scientific research and evidence-based policymaking for food, agriculture, and rural economies more broadly.
We all pay for a dismantled Economic Research Service that will never get back to its current number-three ranking in the world for agricultural economics research. The relocation disrupts the quality, breadth, and timeliness of ERS' reports on topics ranging from trade and farm income to nutrition assistance and commodity projections to rural economies and food safety. Being located outside of D.C. will also mean it will be far-removed from its primary audiences and collaborators, not to mention the rich talent pool so appealing to Amazon for its new headquarters. Such setbacks will impact the work of ERS in the long-run.
We will also pay for USDA's research funding agency being dissociated from the planning and collaborations that happen in person in Washington with funding agencies for health, energy, international development, basic research, and more. The interdisciplinary research NIFA coordinates with the other agencies is especially important to ensuring we keep a growing population fed and nourished on existing farmland.
USDA's cost-benefit analysis will, in reality, be a post-hoc justification for their move, showing cost-savings for rent. What it will not show is the bigger savings that could have been achieved by moving the agencies into USDA-owned spaces in the National Capital Region. Its analysis is also unlikely to show the additional costs of doing business from two locations. Leadership and staff will have to travel between the two locations in addition to the locations they currently visit. There will also be the additional costs for the ERS and NIFA stakeholders who will need to travel to Kansas City in addition to D.C. One should also consider the costs already noted of the likely impacts to the quality, breadth, and timeliness of the agencies' work.
Finally, we are deeply concerned for the integrity of USDA science. Secretary Perdue's relocations of ERS and NIFA and realignment of ERS appear, at least, to disregard the work of ERS and NIFA and, at worst, as an attempt to undermine their work. The Secretary's budget requests to slash ERS funding indicate a desire to undercut the work of ERS. USDA's requirement that its scientists label their journal-published work as "preliminary"-finally reversed last month after an outcry-also seems more an attempt to undermine USDA science than good policy.
If Secretary Perdue had consulted with scientific leaders and experts before announcing his ERS and NIFA plans or had made course corrections since, perhaps we wouldn't be as concerned for USDA scientific integrity. Our concerns would also likely be lessened if there were a Senate-confirmed-with broad bipartisan support-chief scientist in place at USDA.
Without checks in place for the integrity of science at USDA, we thank the U.S. House for its efforts to stop Secretary Perdue's ERS/NIFA moves and call on the U.S. Senate to protect the integrity of USDA science and evidence-based policymaking.
The ASA and the broader community have been strongly opposed to Secretary Perdue's counterproductive moves for the following reasons: (i) the detrimental impacts to the agencies and greater USDA mission area; (ii) the lack of justification for the moves; and (iii) the lack of consultation of with experts and stakeholder community.
Wasserstein highlighted the detrimental impacts of the relocations in his statement. For the realignment component, the administrative transfer of the ERS from the USDA mission area to the office of the chief economist (OCE) in the secretary's office jeopardizes ERS's policy-neutral reporting, and the perception thereof.
The integrity of the science, analysis, and statistical reporting from the Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area is overseen and protected by the Senate-confirmed chief scientist and REE undersecretary. Such protection and focus on scientific integrity are lacking under the OCE, which also has a responsibility to support the secretary's policies. Further, such a reorganization would remove ERS from the leadership of REE in prioritizing and coordinating USDA research, education, and analysis.
The USDA stakeholder community has thoroughly dissected Secretary Perdue's rationale provided in the USDA short press release in August, which gave three main reasons: (i) "to improve USDA's ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff"; (ii) "to place these important USDA resources closer to many of its stakeholders"; and (iii) "to benefit the American taxpayers." It was asserted the realignment will "enhance the effectiveness of economic analysis at USDA." The ASA provided an especially thorough consideration of USDA's rationale and concluded that the "likely negative effects of the USDA plans seem far greater than any supposed problems or asserted benefits."
USDA's credibility in presenting a justified and transparent case for moving ERS and NIFA was further undermined by the absence of a publicly available cost-benefit analysis and the use of misleading data. In supporting their claim that ERS suffered a staff attrition problem, USDA reported the ERS had a 4.5 percentage point greater annual average attrition rate than the rest of USDA for the past five years. It was later revealed the administration used attrition data that included summer interns.
More accurately, the ERS annual attrition rate is less than 1% higher than the whole of USDA for permanent employees for the last five years (FY13-FY17), according to data provided by the USDA to Senator Pat Roberts and Senator Debbie Stabenow. These actions also presents concerns for practicing sound evidence-based policymaking and being stewards of objective, reliable data.
USDA has been unable to show that recruitment has been overly burdensome challenge for either agency or that any challenges will be lessened in Kansas City. Indeed, especially for ERS, recruitment is likely to be more of a challenge outside of Washington, D.C. The Office of Personnel Management noted last fall the challenge of recruiting economists and other science-related professionals and put in place direct hire appointing authorities and a new pay system.
Therefore, recruiting challenges will likely be greater in Kansas City at least for economists where the expected lower pay will negate any cost-of-living gains. The Washington area has several advantages for hiring specialized professionals as noted already by Amazon's decisions to place its second headquarters there. Among the advantages are the many opportunities for dual-career households. For economists specifically, the other three of the top four ranked agricultural economics research institutions in the world are all in the Washington, D.C. area.
USDA's process for making the decisions uprooting its research arm is as concerning as the detrimental impacts of their moves and the lack of justification. In particular, to the best of anyone's knowledge, neither Secretary Perdue nor his staff consulted Congress or any of the USDA research community, including: (i) current or former leadership of REE, ERS, or NIFA; (ii) any land-grant university representatives that have been USDA's partners in agricultural research since 1862; and (iii) USDA REE stakeholders and other research/analysis experts.
While the USDA acknowledged some communications missteps regarding their initial announcement and have promised they are now listening to Congress and the research community, they have not heeded multiple messages from Congress-for example, the FY19 appropriations report language directing USDA to "include all cost estimates for the proposed move of the two agencies, as well as a detailed analysis of any research benefits of their relocation" as part of their FY20 budget justification-or made any changes to their initial plans or otherwise substantively addressed the comments to indicate they are taking the concerns to heart.
The opposition to Secretary Perdue's plans has been broad. The ASA is one of many groups opposing the moves. In March, 108 organizations signed a letter to House and Senate appropriators urging they block the USDA moves. The chief scientists and REE undersecretaries from the previous two administrations have also been actively opposed, including in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies and a letter to Congress that has since been signed by 79 other leaders in the land-grant university system.
Former USDA officials and leaders of federal statistical agencies also voiced their concerns in October. In November, the ASA Board of Directors issued a statement of concern for the USDA Economic Research Service and on the vital and unique role of federal statistical agencies.