USDA NIFA and ERS Move: Good or Bad for “Science”?

I ran across this NPR story about possibly moving USDA Agencies NIFA and ERS out of the Washington D.C. area. I think it’s altogether possible to critique initiatives without hyperbole e.g. “hostility toward science” but the more intense the expression, the more likely to be quoted, I guess.

Many Forest Service folks may not be familiar with NIFA and their forest research programs. This seems like a good time to highlight their work. See this link.

It’s interesting that this article fits the story into the idea box (I guess it’s maybe a “trope” ) of “the war on science.”  Since I am a former employee of NIFA (when it was known as CSREES) I’d like to give two arguments for why the move might be “good for science.” I’ll stick to NIFA and leave it to your own consideration whether my arguments might apply to ERS.

I don’t know how many of you have tried to hire people for positions in DC. It’s not always easy.  I’ve tried to hire scientists for the FS and for NIFA, and also NEPA folks in the Forest Service.

First, you can get better employees and they may well be happier in their location. If we use the idea recently discussed about fire folks, that “people should lead what they know”, then we would want folks from the land grants to work at NIFA.  Now consider the kinds of towns that have 1860, 1890, and 1994 land grant universities and other affiliated institutions (check out the map above). The cost of living is lower.  They are not crowded (or not relatively compared to DC). The public schools tend to be better.  I spent 14 lovely years in D.C., but most people from a land grant university town may well not want to move their families there.  Why did I get a job with NIFA? I wanted a promotion and had the qualifications. I was not the “best candidate” by any means, but I was already in DC , so found myself in a pretty shallow applicant pool.

But many in the research community said efficiency isn’t driving the move. It’s hostility toward science.

“I think that moving the agencies out of D.C. is going to significantly dilute their effectiveness as well as their relevance,” says Ricardo Salvador, who is the Director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The plan is to leave some folks in DC according to these stories. In terms of NIFA, when I worked there, my office was in a rented building near the L’Enfant Plaza Metro. Honestly, I could have been anywhere. I traveled to review university programs, but I never visited the Congress nor I don’t think anyone in the “head shed” as we called the USDA building (until I was called on the carpet, but that’s another story). We were absolutely outward looking to where the work was and the communities we served (research, education and extension), so it’s a peculiar argument that folks with jobs like I had “need” to be in DC to be “effective” and “relevant.”

Second, part of who you are is who you hang with at work, and who you talk to, which papers you read or what people are discussing on your Nextdoor app, and so on. With people at the agency in DC and also elsewhere, you’d get more diverse perspectives within your workforce. It seems to me that you can argue it either way.. one way is that locality doesn’t make any difference because we all consume the same media and are all interconnected via teaming apps, (so why not move to somewhere cheaper? ) or locality does matter, and so you should be near the people you serve or study.

Now if I were Secretary, I would not move people against their will because it is so disruptive (remember the move to Albuquerque Service Center?) and you might lose precisely those employees you want to keep. I would let those who want to go, go, and let the others be virtual employees- and hire all the new folks at the new site. I bet if the FS had to do the ASQ thing over, they would do it this way.

Here’s a piece on the top three sites.

If we get away from the “war on science” partisan mantra, we can see that there are many arguments why this might be a good idea, and many ways to mitigate negative effects. And IMHO it’s most peculiar that the idea that moving to the Midwest will give us poorer science goes unquestioned at, of all places, Minnesota Public Radio.

15 thoughts on “USDA NIFA and ERS Move: Good or Bad for “Science”?”

    • Jon, the only “political interference” I ever observed at NIFA was Senator Leahy’s office calling to encourage us to fund a grant for dairy research.

  1. Jon, the only “political interference” I ever observed at pre-NIFA was Senator Leahy’s office calling to encourage us to fund a grant for dairy research.

  2. I worked for ERS, Extension Service-USDA, CSRS, and NIFA. I agree with a lot of what you said about NIFA. I’ve thought that with the extent of teleworking being done before the current Secretary unwisely banned it abruptly and how much some employees there wanted to telework more and more, it would be hard to argue that they must be in DC. That said, the way this move is being done with the predictable loss of talent is unconscionable. The old CSRS did need to be in DC; I worked on legislation, testified before a Congressional subcommittee, had productive relationships with other agencies and organizations headquartered in DC. I went back 25 years later for a relatively short stint and it (then NIFA) had basically become a grant administering agency and the work didn’t have to be done in DC. ERS has much more of a headquarters mission and shouldn’t be exiled.

    • As an old CSREES person, (after CSRS and ES combined, I guess), I’d be interested in your observations about the changes of 25 years.. please consider writing a blog post about your observations!

  3. There were a lot of changes I noticed.
    •Teleworking, which helps with things like work-life balance by making some commutes unnecessary, allows some people for certain types of work (e.g., drafting a report) work with fewer disruptions, alleviates pressure on the strained transit system, and lessens traffic congestion. But, it has made teamwork and cohesiveness more difficult. People are more creative when they interact with other people.
    • USERRA has had the intended impact of increasing the number and proportion of the civilian Federal workforce being veterans. Previously, veterans preference (5 points for a vet and 10 points for a disabled vet) gave veterans an edge; USERRA makes it increasingly difficult to hire anyone who is not a vet. This trend is changing the work culture as more people coming from a strict chain-of-command (following orders) organization join a more collegial, leadership-driven (less commanding) work culture. (This may not apply to Forest Service specifically, where there’s a chief and employees are uniformed.)
    • Contractors are being used as indispensable, essential staff. They are so intermingled among civil service employees that it creates challenges (e.g., They sometimes quit during shutdowns moving to other assignments through their firms; It is difficult keeping contractors from overhearing or participating in conversations that can give them an advantage in later bids to renew or expand their work)
    • Flexible work schedules. This option (four 10-hour days/week or 8 9-hour days + one 8-hour day and one day off) was just beginning in the last pay period of my first 11-year stint at USDA in DC. When I returned, it was the norm and frequently used. It also helped people balance work and life (e.g., doctors appointments and such on they day off in a pay period). When this is combined with several days of teleworking it can make it so a person is in the office with colleagues only a day or two a week, with (in my opinion) a negative impact in teamwork, engagement, and creativity.
    • Diversity. In my earlier stint the SES ranks were very white and male. Today, it is not at all unusual for top positions to be held by women and persons of color.

  4. PS I worked for ERS 6 years in DC followed by 5 years for Extension Service-USDA in DC. Immediately after that I was faculty and administration at a land-grant university where I administered an Extension program and was a regular tenured faculty position. In that role I had an Experiment Station project, had an Extension program, and did classroom teaching. In those years I was under USDA in its configuration at the time (CSREES, as I recall). At the end of my careerI went back to Washington and worked for another Federal department and, finally, NIFA.

  5. Continuation of observations of differences over time

    • Cubicles. While they are commonplace today, it was a definite change from my 1979-1990 stint in DC to my 2013-2016 stint. I did not occupy a cubicle because I was a manager (had to be able to have an office with a door that closed for confidential meetings with personnel). But, it was a difference. I arrived after people had been moved from private and semi-private offices. The effects on morale were still fresh. For new, younger people I hired it didn’t seem to matter because they had never anything else. I observed a lot of competition among staff over location of cube (front or back of row; proximity to a window) and size of the cube with rules regarding rank and seniority being determinative factors. People complained a lot about noise (hearing a neighbor talk with another co-worker, project team meetings). There were headphones to cut down on ambient noise. One of the officed staff from NIFA is moving to Kansas City; it’s going to be a “cube farm”, she lamented.

    • Beth, such interesting observations! When I went to work for CSREES it was my first experience in my career of a private office (after 17 years of federal service). I felt like that character on Star Trek (7 of 9?) who had been separated from The Collective, so I do think part of it is about what you are used to. I probably lost a good colleague and potential friend by asking her to not talk so loudly on the phone in our “cubical farm” in 4NW of the Yates Building.

      When I worked in DC in NEPA for the Forest Service, the managers got to have higher walls on their cubicles but no doors. Even the Directors and Associate Deputy Chiefs didn’t have offices with doors so that must be a cultural agency difference. When I worked for CSREES (96-98), morale had been impacted by combining agencies (Extension and CSRS); at the time employees were not fans of the merger. Hopefully with 20 more years and retirements, that is not an issue anymore.

  6. “The Trump administration is sending out removal letters to 250 scientists and researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who have declined short-notice relocation from Washington, D.C. to a not-yet-to-be determined area in the Kansas City region.”

    Consequences that were unintended, or not?

    • Here’s my guess as to rationale:
      (not Trump, who probably doesn’t know or care)
      Sec. Perdue (and/or associates) figured it would be better and cheaper to have these folks out closer to the people they serve. It is, after all, research that is focused on agriculture. I think that there are reasonable arguments to be made for that (e.g. should a Center for the Science of Wheat be located in Maine, or The Lobster Production Institute in Idaho?)

      They probably checked on this with some stakeholders who agreed or were at least lukewarm, but might want to stay out of the limelight, given that universities (even Land Grants) are likely to have faculty of the non-Trump persuasion (if you need studies of this I may need to write the authors to get access).

      What they perhaps didn’t plan for was the fact, as I pointed out, that many people who work there are imbedded in DC through dual-career couple-dom or for other reasons.

      If I were Perdue, I would have picked an area with some criteria specifically addressing employee concerns through an open process. And given where they are today, I would let the non-movers work from home until they moved on/retired and then refill at the new location. But the idea that someone has targeted agriculture researchers because they don’t like agricultural science doesn’t ring true for me. As long as Congress funds agricultural science, someone will continue to do it, meet the qualifications for the position, and be located somewhere.

    • thanks for the link, Beth! I thought it was kind of funny that the WaPo said in this story:
      “A study from ERS, for instance, one of the agencies targeted for the move, showed that a $1.5 trillion tax bill signed by Trump offered few, if any, benefits to low-income farmers.

      Does the Prez feel responsible for all the potential ramifications of every bill he signs? Is Ag even on his list of issues he cares about? I’m doubtful. He’s apparently vetoed only five and those mostly had to do with defense exports. Does the WaPo give the Prez credit when he signs “good” bills like LWCF, say?

  7. Now it’s time for restoration:

    “Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to relocate ERS and NIFA was widely regarded as part of a broader effort within the department to demote important research.

    Employees and advocates say a central piece of Biden’s agriculture agenda will rest on repairing the department overall to restore its focus on the environment, nutrition, food safety and more. But doing so will require rebuilding a piece of the federal bureaucracy that experienced a wholesale restructuring under Trump, one that could take years of effort.

    The abrupt relocation in mid-2019 of the USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture from D.C. to Kansas City resulted in a wave of career-service employees leaving, hundreds of economic and research positions left unfilled, and delays of dozens of vital research reports on topics like conservation, nutrition assistance and the farm economy.”


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