Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area

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.

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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 new headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday.

“Moving these researchers out of Washington puts them out of earshot from policymakers. A lot of the research that scientists and economists do at [the 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. 

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 said 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 hands, 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 the Kansas City area, according to the employee tallies.

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.

Democrats have blocked USDA funding from supporting the move and asked the agency to turn over information about its decisionmaking process, and they have sponsored legislation to keep the two agencies in Washington.

“I am appalled with the Trump administration’s decision to force hundreds of Washington-based USDA research staffers to uproot their lives to Kansas City in order to keep their livelihoods,” Rep. Chellie PingreeRochelle (Chellie) PingreeCongress pumps brakes on Interior push to relocate Bureau of Land Management Overnight Energy: Changing climate boosts Maine lobster industry -- for now | 2020 Dems debate climate response at Detroit debate | Dem asks for perjury investigation into Interior nominee Changing climate boosts Maine lobster industry — for now MORE (D-Maine), who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement when the move was announced. 

“Many of these staffers believe their relocation is an effort to silence their research into topics that do not align with the Trump administration’s political agenda, including the study of climate change and benefits of low-income food assistance,” she added. 

Employees had a list of complaints about a move they have likened to Amazon’s search for a second headquarters, as the USDA examined bids from 139 cities. 

That process was put on pause during the government shutdown, but on June 16 employees were told they had a month to decide whether they’d like to move to the Kansas City area or leave the agency.

Employees would then have two months to move to Kansas City — they must be there by the end of the fiscal year — but school in the area is slated to start Aug. 12, putting added pressure on those with families to quickly make a move.

Employees say they are getting conflicting information about how much of their moving costs will be covered by the government. Other key details about the move are also unknown so far, according to the employees.

The USDA said it was working to make the move as smooth as possible but did not respond to several specific questions about the move from The Hill.

“USDA has determinedly worked to ensure employees have the resources they need to make informed decisions about their employment and to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible,” the agency said in a statement.

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Employees say morale is at an all-time low and they worry about the future of an agency that is already hemorrhaging staff and having trouble completing its work.

“Honestly, I’m not sure how we’re going to bounce back or if we will,” said Laura Dodson, an agricultural economist with ERS who is now a union steward. “This agency is the product of like 50 years of institutional knowledge and gathering up researchers who are very specialized in their fields.”

Employees also say there are contradictions between what the USDA says it hopes to achieve with the move and how it would actually impact the department.

“It was sort of get fired or go,” said Ariela Zycherman, a national program leader with NIFA who is still weighing a move to Kansas City.  

“People keep saying, ‘Those East Coasters don’t want to come to Kansas or Missouri.’ The fact of matter is that’s not really the issue,” she said. “Many of us would move to Kansas City, but there are questions about future of agency and its effectiveness and questions about the way this was hastily rolled out and whether it will have long-term effects on our families’ well-being.”

The USDA has argued the move will allow employees to be closer to farmers — something employees say shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what they do.

“I think the biggest misconception around this is, we don’t serve individual farmers,” Dodson said. “Our stakeholders are primarily Congress and program leads and agencies and nonprofits in D.C. or people that come to meet with multiple entities in D.C."

“I think our presence will be very much diminished. I think we’ll be quite literally out of sight and out of mind,” Dodson added.

The bipartisan Kansas and Missouri delegation pushed hard to bring the offices to the Kansas City area, calling it a hub for research and a talented workforce and touting the lower cost compared to Washington, D.C.

But employees say the hectic way the move has been handled has soured many about the USDA.

“I’ve never experienced morale like this in any job,” said Wesley Dean, a national program leader in sociology for NIFA. “My colleagues are deeply committed to the mission of the agency and see their positions as an opportunity to both shape the future of their scientific disciplines and to serve the American people. 

“These highly motivated civil servants feel as if their expertise and dedication to the agency and the public has been undermined and dismissed by the department,” Dean added.