October 27, 2019

NIFA and ERS reportedly “gutted”

NIFA and ERS reportedly “gutted” following Kansas City relocation

For more than a year, there’s been constant back and forth between USDA leadership, employees, Congress, and Trump administration officials over the agency’s plan to relocate the majority of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS) employees outside the D.C. metro area.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the move would save taxpayer money, allow the agency to recruit and retain more experts, and better collaborate with stakeholders in rural areas. Meanwhile, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the move served to circumvent normal procedures to fire employees by instead forcing NIFA and ERS employees to quit rather than make the move.

“By simply saying to people, ‘You know what? We’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out into the real world into the real part of the country, they quit,” Mulvaney told an audience at a South Carolina Republican Party dinner. “What a wonderful way to kind of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

As of Oct. 8, NBC News reported that only 16 employees from the ERS and 45 from the NIFA had made the move to the rented offices in Kansas City. At the same time, hundreds of employees have resigned or retired early rather than make the move, leaving the two agencies “gutted.” At this time, the USDA says it is actively recruiting new employees in the Kansas City area. The department also announced a teleworking option for remaining employees through the end of 2019.

Now, more current and former USDA employees are coming forward to report how the move has affected research efforts.

According to an internal ERS memo, shared with Politico, the move will lead to “significant delays” in research reports. The USDA identified 38 specific reports that may be delayed, which include analysis of consolidation in the dairy industry, food security for veterans, and international agricultural market access. Reports on price spreads may be discontinued.

At NIFA, research funds have been assigned to specific projects, funding will not be returned to the Treasury Department at the end of the year, as some feared. But Agrinews reports that low staffing means there are delays in processing grant paperwork and are releasing the funds to scientists. “Funds for projects supported by NIFA's competitive grant program, the $400 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, also have been delayed.”

At an Oct. 17 hearing before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research, Scott Hutchins, USDA deputy undersecretary for research, education, and economics, said that while the agencies are understaffed, the move will have long-term benefits for research.

Committee Chair Stacey Plaskett told Hutchins, “As subcommittee chair, I expect ERS and NIFA to quickly be restored to their former prominence.”

 According to Hutchins, the Trump administration is “fully committed to supporting research that ensures U.S. producers will be able to adapt to changes in climate and continue to develop and advocate for a wide range of sustainable intensification practices.”