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Christopher Smith/New York Times

January 20, 2020

‘Concern and Uncertainty’: Trump Administration Policy Disrupts Cornell Research

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Agricultural economists are in the business of making forecasts, but even they can’t predict the effect of a changing political climate on their research.

A massive organizational shakeup in the United States Department of Agriculture at the direction of the Trump administration has delayed University research projects that rely on funding and cooperation from the federal agency, according to Cornell professors.

In June 2019, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the USDA Economic Research Service began relocating hundreds of employees from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri in what government officials said was an effort to bring the agency officials closer to farmers — resulting in an exodus of government researchers unwilling to make the over 1,000-mile move.

Both the NIFA and ERS conduct research on issues in food systems, rural America and the environment, to help guide effective agriculture policy.

The ERS cited proximity to stakeholders, cost savings and difficulty attracting talent to Washington D.C.; according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the move was projected to “facilitate their long-term efficiency, effectiveness, and service to our customers.”

“With this new lease in Kansas City, the federal government will realize significant savings which can be attributed to lower lease costs in the Kansas City region and to improved efficiencies resulting in a smaller physical footprint realized through the co-location of the two agencies,” a USDA press release said.

But despite the government’s rationale, the mass departure of ERS researchers has sent shock waves through the field of agricultural economics, disrupting research collaborations and funding.

According to Laura Dodson, a union leader at the American Federation of Government Employees, over 145 ERS employees retired, were fired or moved to other USDA agencies, academia or the private sector, rather than move to the agency’s new location in Kansas City.

“The biggest cost of moving is the loss of expertise,” said Prof. Jennifer Ifft, applied economics and management. “A lot of people weren’t able to move because they have family in the D.C. area, so the agency was drastically reduced in size.”

According to Ifft, agency staff focused on policy briefs and forecasts have remained in D.C., while scientific researchers were asked to move to Missouri. Rather than relocate, many researchers have transitioned to academic positions, other government agencies or left the field of agricultural economics entirely.

But employees who decided to stay in D.C. have also faced research-related barriers. One of Ifft’s research projects on crop insurance could be delayed up to a year because her collaborators moved to different government agencies.

The effort of Prof. Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, applied economics and management, to improve real-time forecasting was also disrupted, because his USDA collaborator, Dr. Andrew Crane-Droesch, left the ERS instead of moving to Kansas City.

While many have long argued that moving government agencies out of the nation’s capital could benefit less wealthy regions and save taxpayers money, Ortiz-Bobea expressed suspicion about the government’s true motivations for the relocation — pointing out that most ERS research does not require geographic proximity to farmers.

According to Crane-Droesch, while the work of the ERS is non-partisan, the findings of the organization can oppose the interest of certain politicians, making them the target of political scrutiny.

“There is some general concern and uncertainty for the agricultural economics profession. I work with a lot of graduate students, and we are training them for jobs at the USDA, other federal agencies, land-grant universities and research institutes,” Ifft added. “Is there going to be federal public funding for researching these important issues in the future?”