May 27, 2019 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

As the managing editor of a peer-reviewed journal, I’m accustomed to seeing disclaimers alongside articles written by employees of federal agencies; they normally explain that the views expressed don’t necessarily reflect official agency views or policy. However, I was taken aback last month when I saw that USDA was instructing its researchers to use an unusual and inaccurate disclaimer with research published in scientific journals (emphasis added):

“The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.”

The whole point of publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is that authors receive expert feedback on their manuscripts and revise them accordingly – so, what gets published is the opposite of preliminary. Susan Offutt, who ran USDA’s Economic Research Service under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, told the Washington Post’s Ben Guarino that the directive appears to conflict with the agency’s scientific integrity policy, which encourages researchers to publish in scientific journals.

An outcry followed Guarino’s reporting, and USDA then updated its policy to remove the word “preliminary” from the disclaimer. Now, when disclaimers are deemed necessary, the language will read: “The findings and conclusions in this [publication/presentation/blog/report] are those of the author(s) and should not be construed to represent any official USDA or U.S. Government determination or policy.”

In this instance, public attention to a problem prompted a positive response. Other threats to research at USDA have not been resolved so easily, though.

Proposed relocations spark concerns and departures

In August, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that USDA’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS) would move to a to-be-determined site outside of the DC metro area. He also proposed to move ERS within the agency’s organizational chart, removing it from the Office of the Undersecretary of Research, Education, and Economics and placing it instead within the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE). In response, 56 former USDA and federal statistical agency officials wrote to Congress to warn that the proposed changes cause concerns about retaining staff expertise, continuing valuable collaborations, maintaining visibility with policymakers, and preserving independence and credibility.

“Moving ERS under OCE could give Secretary Perdue (or any future USDA Secretary, for that matter) more control over what research does and does not get done by ERS or how it’s messaged to the public,” explains the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Rebecca Boehm. She notes that the stated rationale for the move includes cost savings and better customer service, but the proposed physical move will split up divisions and teams in a way that’s unlikely to make service more efficient. And, she explains, there are concerns about ERS staff members’ ability to access critical access to data centers located in the DC area. If the move means ERS has to build a new data center, it seems unlikely that it will end up saving money.

On March 5, USDA began notifying individual employees about whether they could stay in DC or would have to relocate—but the agency did not provide a comprehensive list for those wanting a complete picture of how the move would affect the agency. Last week, POLITICO’s Liz Crampton obtained a list that current and former employees compiled to show who would be staying or moving (or resigning rather than uprooting themselves on short notice). She explains that it demonstrates a pattern:

The Agriculture Department is moving nearly all its researchers into the economic effects of climate change, trade policy and food stamps – subjects of controversial Trump administration initiatives – outside of Washington, part of what employees claim is a political crackdown on economists whose assessments have raised questions about the president’s policies.

… The current and former employees, all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, say the specialties of those who are being asked to move corresponds closely to the areas where economic assessments often clash with the president’s policies, including tax policies, climate change, and the farm economy. The list, shared exclusively with POLITICO, shows a clear emphasis was placed on keeping employees whose work covers relatively non-controversial issues like crop planting over those whose research focused on areas sensitive to the administration.

… Among the employees staying in Washington are senior analysts who conduct global market and crop-outlook estimates and administrative personnel. According to the list, approximately 49 percent of agricultural economists will be allowed to remain in Washington, compared with 14 percent of researchers.

Employees told Crampton that agency leadership “turned against the research service after an estimate early last year suggested that the Republican-backed tax plan would largely benefit the wealthiest farmers.” Crampton notes that Perdue’s relocation announcement came several months after news outlets reported on that USDA analysis.

Earlier this month, ERS employees voted overwhelmingly to unionize under the American Federation of Government Employees. Members of the House and Senate have expressed concerns and requested more information from Secretary Perdue. And USDA Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong told the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies that her office is investigating:

OIG is performing an inspection to determine USDA’s legal and budgetary authority to execute: (1) the realignment of the Economic Research Service (ERS) under the Office of the Chief Economist, and (2) the relocation of ERS and NIFA offices. As part of this review, we will also determine USDA’s adherence to any established procedures relating to agency realignment and relocation and procedures associated with cost-benefit analyses. And, as always, we will continue to provide financial statement audits of programs and work with USDA and its agencies to improve their controls over financial reporting.

All these actions have the potential to cause USDA to reconsider these harmful moves. Even if they don’t end up happening, though, damage to the agency is already evident. Guarino reports:

Federal employees at the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) have quit in unusually large numbers since August, when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he would relocate the offices.

… “Morale is pretty poor,” said an ERS economist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The economist recently calculated resignation rates at the agency: ERS averaged about one non-retirement departure per month during fiscal years 2016 through 2018. Since October, that rate has doubled, the employee said. On a single day at the end of April, six people quit ERS.

This comes on top of concerns about morale that the Union of Concerned Scientists identified in a survey conducted in early 2018. Scientists and economists at ERS, NIFA, and other USDA divisions “raised concerns about the effects of political interference, budget cuts, and staff reductions,” UCS’s Karen Perry Stillerman reported.

Low morale and departures are already creating a bleak picture for future USDA research on food stamps and climate change impacts, and it may get even worse if the proposed moves go through.

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