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A Development Win For Kansas City May Be A Loss For Agricultural Research

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to move two signicant research agencies out of Washington, D.C.

A couple of federal agencies you probably haven’t heard of keep track of what farmers grow, what Americans eat and how the country’s entire food system operates. And the Trump Administration wants them out Washington, D.C. — and maybe in the Kansas City area.

Last summer, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would relocate somewhere that’s closer to farmers and public universities doing agricultural research. But critics, including many scientists, balked, saying the agencies won’t be as effective.

ERS collects and crunches numbers on everything from how much corn syrup Americans consume to how tariffs affect farmers, while NIFA funds research that does things like closely track climate change.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to announce a new home for the agencies, but recently narrowed the list to three: the greater Kansas City metro area, the Research Triangle Park area near Raleigh, North Carolina, and various sites in Indiana – Vice President Mike Pence’s home state.

Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran recalled when he heard of Perdue’s proposal.

“My first thought was Kansas City would be the perfect place,” said the Republican, who along with other Missouri and Kansas Congress members support the move.

“Not every job in government needs to be in Washington DC,” Moran said, noting that about nine out of 10 USDA employees already work outside of Washington.

He added that ERS and NIFA would boost budding research clusters like the Kansas City area’s animal health corridor and give bright kids from the region a chance to stay put and still pursue a research career.

Moran said that more than 5,000 USDA employees and contractors already work in the Kansas City area. The federal government is the biggest single employer in Kansas City, and entire region boasts almost 40,000 federal workers.

The move would also fall in line with the Trump administration’s cost-cutting measures. Moran said office rent and the cost of living is cheaper away from the coasts.

But many in the research community said efficiency isn’t driving the move. It’s hostility toward science.

“I think that moving the agencies out of D.C. is going to significantly dilute their effectiveness as well as their relevance,” said Ricardo Salvador, who is the director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The agency’s effectiveness is already at risk, even before any move, according to a former ERS employee who was granted anonymity due to fear of losing his current position.

“Efforts by the secretary … have just destroyed morale,” the ex-ERS employee said.

He said he enjoyed working at the agency until about a year and a half ago, when the researchers began to fear tackling politically sensitive topics. Then, Perdue pushed to take the agency out from under nonpartisan oversight and place it under his control.

Finally, the ex-employee said, the surprise announcement to move most of ERS and NIFA out of Washington triggered a cascade of resignations, including his own.

“I think it's had its intended effect. People have left, morale is low. The agency will take a long time to recover from the damage that's been inflicted,” the former employee said.

Employees remaining at ERS and NIFA are fighting back. ERS researchers recently voted to join the American Federation of Government Employees, and NIFA employees plan to take a vote, too. The union will negotiate to give ERS and NIFA employees longer to decide if they want to move, and it is backing legislation that would withhold funds USDA would need to make the move.

All three Trump budgets, none of which have been accepted in full by Congress, have wanted staff reductions and proposed deep cuts to the agencies.

Salvador, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that’s because objective research often clashes with political ideology. ERS studies, for instance, concluded that the 2017 tax cuts championed by the administration would most benefit the richest farmers, and that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which Trump wants to cut, is good for the economy.

“So the secretary is clearly dealing with inconvenient facts by going to the source and eliminating them,” Salvador said.

Moran said he believes the research agencies can be relocated and well supported, and he’s played a key role in fighting off earlier efforts to cut funding for ag research.

Moran said farmers, ranchers and policymakers can’t make sound decisions without reliable USDA data. But that’s exactly the problem critics have with the proposal to move ERS and NIFA: They say the USDA hasn’t produced data that supports the move.

Frank Morris is a national correspondent at KCUR 89.3. Follow him on Twitter: @franknewsman.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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