Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area

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A Trump administration decision to move researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Kansas City area is threatening to spark the flight of more than half of the staff selected to move, gutting the agency of its top scientific voices.

Staff have until midnight Monday to decide whether to uproot and join the department as it moves its research branches from Washington, D.C., lured by $26 million in promised incentives from state and local officials.

Critics see the move, set to be completed by Sept. 30, as yet another example of the Trump administration looking to sideline scientists and researchers, keeping them away from the corridors of power. Administration officials deny that, calling it a cost-saving move intended to have researchers closer to farmers.

The decision comes as other agencies are also planning to relocate parts of their teams amid suspicions about the move. For example, the Interior Department is expected to announce Tuesday a new headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management.

Why scientists are worried:

“Moving these researchers out of Washington puts them out of earshot from policymakers. A lot of the research that scientists and economists do at [USDA] has policy implications and members of Congress need this information and need to have face-to-face meetings with these researchers,” Rebecca Boehm, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Hill.

“It keeps science out of the policymaking process. And we’ve seen many times that this administration doesn’t like facts or research that isn’t convenient or [is] an impediment to their agenda, so I think moving them away helps accomplish that,” she added.

Who is going to be affected:

The move affects two wings of the USDA. Economic Research Service (ERS) employees analyze the agricultural market, but their research is much broader, including looking at food stamps, rural poverty and conservation.

National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) employees work with universities to fund research and coordinate the process that issues research grants on agriculture-related subjects, including climate change adaptation.

The two agencies voted to unionize in response to the move, as Democrats in both chambers and a number of groups that regularly work with the two agencies lobby to keep them in Washington.

Estimates tallied by employees show 70 percent of ERS employees designated for the Kansas City office will not be moving. For NIFA, 45 percent of those surveyed say they will not move. Overall, the move was expected to impact 547 staff between the two agencies.

But the numbers of staff refusing to move may grow: Some employees said staff at both agencies are trying not to tip their hand, saying they will move only if they do not find another job in the D.C. area.

So far, just 27 ERS staff out of 250 have committed to moving to Kansas City, according to the employee tallies.

What about the money?

The UDSA argues the move will save $300 million over 15 years, but critics have said their cost-benefit analysis was shoddy and did not follow guidelines.

A different cost-benefit analysis from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association found the move would cost taxpayers between $83 million and $182 million.

Read more about opposition to the move here.

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