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The Department of Agriculture has a world class economics research institution … and is throwing it away

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a $140 billion budget to ensure our $1 trillion dollar food and agricultural sector feeds our citizens and people around the world. To help inform its policies and decision making, the department has the Economic Research Service, an $86 million dollar agency producing data and analyses relating to farming and the food supply, natural resources, rural economies, farm income and nutrition. Fitting for the central importance of food and agriculture in the United States, the Economic Research Service is ranked No. 3 in research quality among more than 2,500 academic and government agricultural economics institutions worldwide.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced earlier this month that he wants to relocate the Economic Research Service outside of the Washington area to save federal funds. Many of the 330 staff are not likely to make the move, and the loss of their expertise will jeopardize the quality, relevance, and timeliness of the agency’s products. Some budget savings are sure to be made through resignations and early retirements, but the move will come at a much greater cost to the public by weakening the evidence base for food and agricultural policy in the United States. One might reasonably ask whether, by the secretary’s logic, we should also move the Congressional Research Service—and any number of other evidence and information providing entities–to a location with a lower cost of living?

{mosads}The Economic Research Service should stay in the Washington area with its primary customers. It is not a “farmer-facing” agency, but rather supports congressional and administration policy officials as well as the program agencies of USDA that deliver key farm, environmental and food services. Plus, its analysts collaborate with counterparts in the department’s other research agencies. These same analysts meet regularly with visiting representatives of interest groups and firms that rely on the agency’s data and analysis in their own decision making. In addition, the Economic Research Service is one of twelve principal federal statistical agencies (including the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, among others, all in the Washington area), and it relies on direct interaction with the professionals in this community to develop best practices and adopt efficiency measures. The agency’s presence in the Washington metropolitan area also enhances its ability to recruit and retain the top-flight economists so critical to its work.

The secretary also proposes to move the Economic Research Service from the research part of the Department that informs policy to the chief economist’s office, which must support the secretary’s policies. Such a move jeopardizes the independence, credibility and objectivity that has defined the work of the Economic Research Service. As a principal federal statistical agency, its charge is to produce independent, relevant and timely reports that are respected by all sides of a discussion. The

Economic Research Service should stay in the research arm of the Department of Agriculture. There, the agency would be under the direction of a policy official entrusted with sustaining applied research and ensuring balance between serving to support the secretary’s policies and more broadly informing policies for customers in the public and private sector.

USDA is moving with uncharacteristic speed to implement this plan. An Aug. 15 Federal Register notice has a Sept. 14 deadline for receiving expressions of interest in hosting the ERS and its sister research agency, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture. Moreover, there has been no consultation with those who use and rely on data and analysis from the Economic Research Service despite the secretary’s stated intention to improve customer service. It is perhaps ironic that the notice regarding potential sites for relocation was immediately adjacent to that soliciting nominees for USDA’s research advisory board, which has not met in 18 months. On the assumption that awarding a state the relocated agencies before the November elections is not a consideration, time can be usefully spent in careful examination of this surprising and hastily-assembled plan. Congress should require USDA to provide a full and public justification for the realignment and relocation and hear testimony from the beneficiaries of the work of the Economic Research Service as well as from the agency’s collaborators in universities and research institutes. Good government and evidence-based policy demand no less.

Susan Offutt was administrator of the Economic Research Service under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Tags Bill Clinton Sonny Perdue

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