Legislation Introduced to Preserve and Protect the Scientific Integrity of USDA

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Earlier this year, the Administration proposed to reorganize and relocate key research branches at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There has been widespread concern within the research and farming communities about how the proposal could disrupt the scientific integrity of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and further marginalize critical research. In an effort to address these concerns, OFRF and the Union of Concerned Scientists sent a letter to Congressional leaders from over 1,100 scientists and economists, urging Congress to take action to protect the scientific integrity at USDA.  

On December 20, 2019, action was taken.

Democratic Members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture introduced a new bill aimed at halting the move and protecting the agency’s ability to objectively collect and analyze data on issues ranging from agriculture and conservation to food and rural development. The legislation, called the Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2018 (ARIA), was led by Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Sanford Bishop (D-GA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Mark Pocan (D-WI). Members of the House Agriculture Committee Jim McGovern (D-IL), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Annie Kuster (D-NH) signed on as cosponsors, along with Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC).

The bill requires the USDA to keep these scientific agencies within the greater Washington, DC area, and also keep ERS as part of the Research, Education, and Economics mission area at
USDA.  Many NIFA and ERS staff are drawn to the national capital region, where they can work alongside legislators and other federal agencies, and more seamlessly integrate agriculture research with the greater national science community.

“As a former national program leader at NIFA and a farmer, I have firsthand experience of how the USDA serves customers,” said Diana Jerkins, Research Program Director at OFRF. “Stakeholders travel to DC to meet with NIFA, ERS, and other government officials including members of Congress, all in a single trip. If NIFA and ERS are moved, it will make interaction with these agencies more challenging. Additionally, the ability of these research agencies to work on joint programs, collaborate with other researchers and government officials, and serve the customers of USDA—it would be greatly diminished.”

Given the uncertainty at the USDA, we have already seen the loss of highly experienced and educated staff who would likely not move with the agencies, and are concerned that this move could harm the national efforts to increase agricultural research funding.

As part of the process, the Administration needs to appeal to Congress to fund the proposed move of NIFA and ERS. It is estimated to cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. With every minority member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee signed on to the bill, it is now clear the Administration will face strong opposition not only from stakeholder communities, but also from the new Congress.

Even in the face of this opposition, the USDA has indicated that it intends to announce the new locations of ERS and NIFA in February 2019, and that they intend to proceed with physical relocation by the summer. These moves by the Administration continue to cause uncertainty for USDA staff, and may impact how USDA is able to interact with stakeholders around the country.