I was stunned when I saw the USDA announcement that they were moving their food, agriculture and economics research agencies outside of Washington, DC. Such a bold move for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS), seemingly made in haste without a careful analysis and input by the agricultural research community, is disappointing.
The secretary’s goal to ensure USDA programs are delivered efficiently, effectively and with integrity and a focus on customer service is certainly a commendable goal. However, our agricultural research enterprise is far too important to our country and civilization to offer such far-reaching changes as the secretary has proposed without careful study and analysis. Frankly, the obvious disadvantages without compensating advantages demands opposition to the proposal.
Agricultural research is underappreciated by much of the US and much of the world despite staggeringly impressive achievements. At the beginning of formal agricultural research, about 1843, the population of the planet was approximately 1.4 billion. The planet has since gained over 6 billion people. It is not fortuitous that this growth in population coincides almost precisely with the emergence of agricultural research. While research does not directly produce food, it provides information, knowledge, and technology that enables farmers to use their time and resources more efficiently thereby ensuring agricultural success. Indeed, while the sum total of land, labor, and capital inputs employed in agriculture has hardly changed since 1948, the output of crops and livestock had risen over two and half times by 2009 due almost entirely due to knowledge-based productivity gains. It doesn’t take a genius to see the critical role agricultural research will play in our future well-being.
Why my deep concern? For the past half-century many agricultural research leaders have been working to more fully integrate agricultural research in the national scientific community. Such integration is key to sustaining the knowledge-based productivity gains. We have made much progress but still have a long way to go to be considered equal players in the research community in Washington.
Both as a researcher and especially as an agricultural administrator, I have made many visits with NIFA and ERS. Almost without exception, my visits were always coupled with visits to other agricultural agencies, other federal agencies such as EPA, NIH and NSF, along with visits with the states’ congressional delegation. Relocating NIFA and ERS to a remote location would be a handicap for agricultural scientists and administrators and a step back for the progress in the integration of agricultural research over the last five decades.
USDA has justified the moves as a need for the agencies to be closer to its customers and facilitate economic development in rural America. Our agricultural research and education system clearly already has a unique relationship with its customers through county extension personnel located in almost every county in the US. Each state has at least one and several states have two land-grant Universities. There are also over 500 branch agricultural research stations throughout the US. I simply cannot see how moving NIFA and ERS to some remote location would have a positive impact in improving customer relations with the possible exception of the state where the agencies are located.
It is desirable to stay close to your customer base for the applied aspects of agricultural research. However, I’m not sure if there is much of an advantage such relationship has on basic research. For this critical aspect of agricultural research, close ties to the greater scientific community is a far greater value.
Further, while each state has its own support base, locating NIFA and ERS in one state would be perceived as favoring that state. This would happen even though there was no favoritism displayed.
Finally, earlier this week, I visited several USDA offices in Washington. After these visits I am more convinced than ever this move will undermine the quality and relevance of these agencies. It is clear some of the agencies’ best people will elect to stay in Washington where numerous other inviting opportunities await them.
I’m perplexed at this proposal because our system is the envy of the world. While I strongly support the goal outlined by the secretary, I’m totally confident his proposal to relocate NIFA and ERS out of DC will not contribute to achieving his goal. In fact, it will probably be counterproductive. I would encourage the administration to slow down, initiate a useful, comprehensive, in-depth study before taking such an action.
About the author: Dr. Gale Buchanan was USDA Chief Scientist and Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education & Economics under President George W. Bush.