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Is Trump Trying To Politicize Agricultural Data? Some Former USDA Officials Suspect Yes.

What proportion of U.S. fossil fuel consumption is attributable to our food system? How much are farmers earning from their crops? What percentage of American households have enough food to healthfully feed their members? How would various trade policies affect U.S. agriculture?

When policymakers and other interested parties need answers to these questions, they turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. However, ERS is at the center of a heated debate as the USDA moves to reorganize the agency and relocate it outside of Washington, D.C. The USDA says the plan will save money and improve the agency’s ability to serve its stakeholders. Critics, including at least 56 former USDA and federal statistical agency officials, say the plan undermines the agency’s ability to carry out its mission and threatens its independent status.

The new plan would move ERS from the research arm of the USDA to one that supports the administration’s policies from within the agriculture secretary’s office. That’s worrisome, said John E. Lee, the administrator of ERS from 1981 to 1993, because the agency’s position under the undersecretary for science and education has helped to protect it as a place for objective science. Moving it to the offices of the chief economist places it in a branch centered on policy, which could threaten its ability to remain policy-neutral. (Lee recently wrote an op-ed in The Hill voicing his opposition to the plan.)

“Every administration I’ve worked for — both Democrat and Republican — at some point gets uncomfortable with one piece or another of ERS analysis,” said Susan Offutt, the ERS administrator under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. As an example, she pointed to research showing that most farmers are fairly well off. “It’s not a politically popular finding,” she said, adding such finding are why it’s essential to keep the agency in a neutral role, lest inconvenient statistics like those disappear.

The current mission of the ERS is to provide evidence to inform policy, not to support any policy over another. ERS evaluates USDA programs but not in a prescriptive manner, said Kitty Smith Evans, who served as the ERS administrator from 2006 to 2011. “We had a saying: Never say ‘should.’” Instead, the agency’s role is to determine the economic consequences of policies and then allow policymakers to use that information to make their own decisions, she said.

The new changes were put into motion by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and announced out of the blue, according to multiple sources interviewed for this story. (The USDA press office and ERS are closed during the government shutdown, so they were unavailable to respond to FiveThirtyEight’s request for comment.) “The current administrator is a friend of mine,” said Smith Evans. “The stakeholders were not consulted before or since.”

Many former officials are shaking their heads. “I personally know the secretary [Perdue] and have an extremely high regard for him,” said Gale Buchanan, a former USDA chief scientist and undersecretary of agriculture for research, education and economics. “But I’m just kind of at a loss to really understand the rationale here.”

The USDA has stated three reasons for relocating ERS: to move “important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders,” to “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff,” and to save taxpayers money. Realigning the agency with the Office of the Chief Economist, meanwhile, “will enhance the effectiveness of economic analysis at USDA,” according to a USDA press release.

Former ERS administer Lee said the USDA’s contention that most of ERS’ stakeholders are far from the D.C. area suggests “a lack of knowledge about what the agency really does and who the stakeholders are.” ERS doesn’t work with individual farmers; instead, the agency’s focus is on answering questions about the national impact of policies and legislation.

The American Statistical Association has written a point-by-point rebuttal of USDA’s stated rationale. It notes that moving ERS out of the capital region, which is a hub for statistical researchers, agricultural policy groups and federal agencies, will actually make the agency less connected to its stakeholders and national discussions of agriculture. The relocation would also remove ERS from the broader scientific funding research community, said Steve Pierson, director of science policy at the ASA.

The Trump administration’s 2019 budget proposal, released last February, called for slashing the ERS workforce by more than 40 percent and cutting the budget nearly in half, to $45 million. Congress balked and restored funding in their spending bill1 in May, but the administration’s proposal says a lot about their objectives, Offutt said. Some former ERS officials I spoke with suspected the proposed changes to the agency could be an alternative way to shrink the agency. While the USDA says “no employees will be involuntarily separated,” multiple sources told FiveThirtyEight that since the proposal was announced, the agency has experienced a “brain drain” as workers seek other positions in Washington in anticipation of their jobs being moved to another part of the country. USDA solicited “expressions of interest” for hosting ERS as well as the USDA’s research funding arm, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and says it has received 136 of them.

Meanwhile, a blue ribbon panel of 37 current and former university agricultural administration leaders and former USDA chief scientists wrote to members of Congress saying that relocating the ERS “will set back the agency for 5-10 years and undermine its independence as a federal statistical agency” and urged Congress to intervene to halt the restructuring and relocation plans “at least until there has been a comprehensive independent study and full consultation with the stakeholder community.” The American Statistical Association and the Agriculture and Applied Economics Association also wrote letters opposing the plan.

With Democrats now in control of the House, these groups may yet get their wish. Last month, Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, introduced the “Agriculture Research Integrity Act,” which would block the proposed changes. Meanwhile, the USDA Office of Inspector General is reviewing the USDA plan at the request of Hoyer and other Democrats.

Footnotes

  1. Which has not yet been approved.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science. Her book “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery” is available here.

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