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Trump administration plans to reorganize agriculture research offices, alarming some scientists

President Donald Trump during a signing ceremony for the $716 billion military spending bill in Fort Drum, N.Y., Aug. 13, 2018. He deemed 51 of the law’s statutes to be unconstitutional intrusions on his presidential powers. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON - Scientists are raising alarms over a Trump administration plan to overhaul two federal offices tasked with food and agriculture research, calling the move a ploy to slash funding to projects on climate change, nutrition and other top concerns.

The plan, announced by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week, would relocate one top research office - the Economic Research Service - into the Office of the Secretary, a political branch of the Agriculture Department. It would also move ERS and a second scientific office, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, out of Washington by the end of 2019.

The reorganization, one of several launched over the past 15 months, would streamline the USDA's operations, save taxpayer money and help the agency recruit and retain top staff, Perdue said in a statement.

But a number of leading agricultural scientists and economists say the move risks gutting both agencies and stifling important federal research. The Trump administration has already targeted ERS for steep funding cuts, saying in its 2019 budget proposal that some of the agency's research duplicated work being done at nonprofits and in the private sector.

ERS research spans topics from crop yields and food prices to farm conservation practices, rural employment and nutrition assistance. Occasionally, its findings appear to contradict the administration's official positions: One February ERS report concluded that trade liberalization benefited U.S. farmers.

"It seems weirdly punitive," said Sonny Ramaswamy, who served as NIFA's administrator until his six-year term expired in May. "I can't figure out why they would do this ... There's no compelling rationale."

ERS and NIFA account for just over half of the $2.5 billion Congress budgeted for agricultural research in 2018. ERS employs 300 people in the D.C. region, according to the USDA. NIFA, which funds competitive research grants at U.S. universities, employs a D.C. staff of roughly 400.

Both agencies have struggled to recruit and retain qualified staff in the Washington region, Perdue said in his statement. That was one of three reasons the administration has given for relocating ERS and NIFA, along with cutting costs and moving researchers closer to farming communities.

Relocating ERS within the Agriculture Department will also further streamline its operations, Perdue said, because its mission overlaps with the Office of the Chief Economist, also in the secretary's office.

"It's been our goal to make USDA the most effective, efficient and customer-focused department in the entire federal government," Perdue said. "In some cases, this has meant realigning some of our offices and functions, or even relocating them, in order to make more logical sense or provide more streamlined and efficient services."

But some researchers and former USDA officials say the change seems designed to slash scientific funding. The USDA has said no economists or researchers will lose their jobs as a result of the reorganization, but the department has acknowledged that many will choose not to relocate. And it is unclear if the USDA plans to fill those vacancies.

Scott Swinton, an agricultural economist at Michigan State and the former president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, said the reorganization may be a pretext for gutting federal agricultural research. Many top economists and scientists will resign, he predicts, rather than leave the D.C. area. Ramaswamy, the former NIFA administrator, said many longtime staffers in that office will not make the move, either.

The USDA said the reorganization "was not undertaken as a method of reducing staff."

"What really troubles me is that the administration proposed cutting the ERS budget by 48 percent and laying off half its staff six months ago," Swinton said. "My fear is that now this plan will lead to a high number of resignations - and the administration will say, 'Well, we don't need as much money now,' rather than build that capacity again."

The plan may also weaken ERS research, in particular, critics say, by making it more difficult for agency economists to consult with other federal research offices, lawmakers and federal policy groups.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has warned that placing ERS in the Secretary's Office could intensify political scrutiny of its research, an issue the office's current placement was designed to prevent. It is not unusual for ERS reports to contradict or complicate administration policy, said Susan Offutt, a former ERS administrator who served in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

"That's a constant source of tension, but that's also the benefit of ERS," Offutt said. "You learn things you may not have otherwise thought of. It's good government."

Offutt cautions that it's impossible to judge the administration's plans without more information. Outside policy groups and other stakeholders will ultimately decide if the reorganization improves USDA's research, she said.

But not everyone is so optimistic. In hindsight, Ramaswamy said he now sees hints that cuts were coming to USDA. For months after the Trump administration took over, he said, Perdue refused to allow him to fill open positions at NIFA, even as other departments added employees. At one point, Ramaswamy also met with congressional staff members to argue against proposed cuts to his department's budget, although he says he remained on good terms with USDA's political appointees.

"I don't have an ax to grind here," Ramaswamy said. "I'm just concerned that they're taking this agency back decades at a time when we want them thinking about compelling scientific challenges."

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This article was written by Caitlin Dewey, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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