Self-inflicted brain drain at USDA threatens farm economy

by Peter LaFontaine

At a time when farmers face climate change challenges, tariffs and the fallout from our record flood year, the USDA announced relocation plans for two crucial research agencies. (Photo USDAGOV/flickr)

A painful choice for researchers

On a Thursday morning in mid-June, hundreds of the world's best agricultural researchers opened their email to find an announcement from the boss. In effect, it told them, “We’re packing up and moving the office to an unspecified location a thousand miles away. You’re welcome to come with us, but you only have a month to decide.”

That’s the scenario facing scientists and other staff at two agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who are responsible for applying science to improve our food supply, economy and environment. They only know that the office will be in the vicinity of Kansas City. All of the major details facing movers — housing, school districts and more — remain vague. So far, the majority have chosen to stay put and look for work elsewhere rather than uproot their families for an uncertain journey.

What's the real cost?

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has pitched the move as a way to save money, attract more talent to the agencies and put them closer to farmers. But an independent analysis found that taxpayers will actually lose tens of millions on the deal and the agency will sacrifice research capacity.

Some USDA staff believe this is part of a broader effort to dismantle the federal workforce. Writing in the Kansas City Star, the executive director of the American Statistical Association says that the move "will produce the results Perdue seeks: two research agencies that are shells of their former selves with half the employees, producing half the research."

Why it matters to FMR

In another era, this might be “just” an ill-advised administrative edict. However, 2019 couldn’t be a worse time to hemorrhage brainpower; international tariff battles and a record-setting flood year continue to hurt farm sector profits, and the Economic Research Service (one of the agencies slated for relocation) has found that climate change will cause a severe decline in farm productivity of our biggest crops, adding billions to taxpayers' bills for crop insurance subsidies.

Balancing economic and environmental outcomes in our cropland agricultural systems is more important than ever. We rely on the USDA for this data and analytic capacity — the very things we will lose if the USDA goes forward with its relocation plans. The move simply doesn't add up. USDA should reverse course and do the right thing for its scientists and the country.

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