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Moving the Department of Agriculture’s primary research team outside Washington, D.C., will create more problems than it solves, according to a report from a group that represents “the world’s largest community of statisticians.”
“The reasons [given by Secretary Sonny Perdue for relocating the Economic Research Service] are generally found to be lacking in substance or evidence, or needing additional and independent study,” the report from the American Statistical Association says. “Indeed, it remains unclear what problems the USDA seeks to address with their plans.”
Perdue this summer announced plans to restructure and relocate the Economic Research Service. The Washington D.C.-based institution is ranked as the third most important agricultural economics research organization in the world. Its research is comprehensive and exhaustive, covering technical agricultural topics, demographics, social-wellbeing indicators, and more. Also involved in the relocation plan is another USDA research institution based in Washington, D.C., the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Perdue has said moving the agencies will save money, retain employees, and put researchers closer to “stakeholders.”
The American Statistical Association – a private organization with members representing industry, government and academia – says the USDA’s rationale for the relocation is contradictory and lacks evidence.
“The alleged problems being addressed seem minor, nonexistent, or unsubstantiated,” according to the report. “Similarly, any possible benefits are asserted without support. Meanwhile, the disruptions that would likely result to ERS work are clear and would have ramifications for at least the next decade.”
Last week the American Statistical Association sent a letter to House and Senate agriculture leadership asking Congress to restrict USDA from spending any funding to relocate the Economic Research Service. The farm bill, which funds ERS along with the rest of USDA’s programs, is in conference committee, and it’s uncertain whether it will be approved before the new Congress convenes in January. The bill currently contains no restrictions on USDA’s ability to relocate ERS.
The bulk of the American Statistical Association report is a point-by-point rebuttal of the benefits USDA sees in relocating the research agency. Some of those arguments include the following:
- USDA says the change will help improve employee attrition. The report says USDA initially misstated the ERS attrition rate at 4.5% greater than the department-wide attrition rate because it included summer interns in the figures. The actual number is 1% greater, according to figures USDA later supplied to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
- USDA says ERS has trouble recruiting researchers to the D.C. location and that moving would ease these difficulties. The report says USDA hasn’t supplied any public data to support the assertion that there is a recruiting problem. In fact, ERS has avoided recruiting challenges that other federal agencies face, the report says. “As the #3-ranked institution in the world for agricultural economic research, ERS is a top agency for which to work. … Further, Washington, D.C., is likely the largest concentration of agricultural economists in the world, with the other three top-four agricultural economics agencies all located there.”
- USDA says moving ERS will result in cost savings. The report says USDA has not documented the savings and in fact has backed away from the cost savings claim, moving from calling the savings “significant” to saying that the move would create “potential for saving on employment and facilities costs.”
- The USDA says moving ERS out of Washington will put the agency closer to stakeholders. The American Statistical Association report says D.C.-based lawmakers, policymakers, USDA staff, and other federal agencies are ERS’s primary constituents.
- The report also criticizes USDA for not requesting public comment on the restructuring and for moving the proposal forward too quickly.
In response to a query from the Daily Yonder, USDA sent the following statement (which it also provided to other media last week):
“The planned move of ERS and NIFA has generated great enthusiasm around the country, as 136 parties in 35 states have formally expressed interest in hosting the agencies. USDA is undertaking the relocations for a variety of reasons. The move will place important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington, D.C. area. Additionally, taxpayers will realize significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. Finally, the plan will improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.”
The Daily Yonder routinely republishes reports generated by the Economic Research Service and uses ERS data in its reporting. In recent months, ERS reports and data have been used in Daily Yonder stories on the impact of school nutrition programs, demographic characteristics of rural veterans, rural employment patterns, the relationship of farm size to federal farm support, rural economic innovation, and changes in U.S. population trends. The most recent ERS publication is the 2018 edition of “Rural America at a Glance,” a reference brochure with commonly cited data on employment, population, agricultural production, and other economic and demographic data.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.