Last August, the Trump administration’s agriculture secretary announced a plan to relocate the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington to somewhere else, subject to a competition. The reasons: to take these agencies closer to farmers, cut costs, and attract employees. Many states, including Wisconsin, competed for the chance to house these agencies, regrettably muting their criticism of the inherently bad idea of this move.
Why was it a bad idea? We who opposed the move said that it dangerously politicized research and science, that it would eviscerate the agencies’ most senior staff, who would likely opt to not move, that it would reduce the potential for cross-agency collaboration that is essential in cutting-edge research programming, and that it would not save money.
Starting in December, the hemorrhaging began, with senior staff leaving the agencies for higher ground. A year later, 80 percent of remaining staff in one agency and 70 percent in the other say that they will likely not transfer to the chosen site of Kansas City. On the ground, this translates into paralysis among staff. Having served on review panels for the National Institute, I know the careful process that their staff has used to convene independent reviewers and assure that taxpayer dollars are optimally and impartially spent on research and programming that benefits the nation.
Without such diligence, confidence in research, science and fact-based decision-making erodes. Moreover, scientists are given signals to stifle important facts that don’t suit the agenda of political leaders; already scientists across other USDA research agencies are leaving, accusing the administration of trying to bury their climate science research.
In fact, there’s a reason to suspect that this move was considerably motivated by the Trump administration’s desire to punish agencies that funded research that documents the dangerous onward march of climate change. Recently, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney described the move as a “wonderful way to sort of streamline government,” which is to say downsize agencies that don’t get in line.
I recognize that for non-researchers and non-agricultural leaders, this issue might seem like inside baseball. But it actually goes to the heart of how society functions well. Any society has to figure out how to gather resources to meet individual and collective needs, whether it’s a group hunting and gathering or taxation with a system for prioritizing and administering needs. When President Ronald Reagan began his critique of government as over-regulating and over-taxing the beleaguered citizen, it found a receptive audience, which has become a standard Republican theme.
However, when I hear farmers asking, quite reasonably, for seed varieties suited to current climate conditions, for strategies to address super weeds, strategies to address verticillium wilt, ways to develop new markets to compensate for those lost to the trade war, and more, I wonder whether those for whom anti-government talk has become habitual understand how crucial federally funded research agencies are to meeting their needs. How could they reasonably be expected to know how absolutely crucial it is to the future of agricultural innovation in this country for those agencies to operate well?
Anti-governmental sentiments, like verticillium wilt, seem to never quite go away. In the meantime, they have sufficiently contaminated the means of supporting a healthy agricultural economy that they risk allowing a political agenda to destroy the sources of innovation on which agriculture, and this nation, depend.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
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