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USDA Research Agencies 'Decimated' By Forced Move. Undoing The Damage Won't Be Easy

Union Station and the Kansas City skyline are lit on Feb. 01, 2021 in Kansas City, Mo. In June 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its plan to move two of its research agencies out of Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area. Rather than move, most of the people working at the agencies quit, leaving gaping holes in critical divisions.
Union Station and the Kansas City skyline are lit on Feb. 01, 2021 in Kansas City, Mo. In June 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its plan to move two of its research agencies out of Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City area. Rather than move, most of the people working at the agencies quit, leaving gaping holes in critical divisions.

During the Trump administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers published and funded objective analyses of issues such as climate change, the efficiency of food assistance programs, and tax cuts that mostly benefit the richest farmers. It wasn't received well.

"There definitely was hostility in the Trump administration towards federal workers," says Tom Bewick, a national program leader at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. "There was also hostility in the Trump administration towards science, and so, if you were a federal employee and a science agency, that was the double whammy."

Trump officials proposed deep cuts to USDA research agencies. When Congress wouldn't go along, the administration came up with plan B: Move two agencies — the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service — far away from Washington.

Dozens of local governments courted the agencies aggressively, much as they would a corporate headquarters. Greater Kansas City won with support from both Kansas and Missouri as well as millions of dollars in local incentives. The Agriculture Department promised huge savings for U.S. taxpayers, and more than 550 new, high-paying jobs for the Kansas City metro.

It hasn't worked out that way.

"I guess somebody swallowed the propaganda in Kansas City, and I hope they're not suffering too badly from it because those benefits that were projected aren't coming forth," says Katherine "Kitty" Smith Evans, director of government relations for the American Economic Association.

Evans ran the Economic Research Service during parts of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. She says that more than half of agency employees decided to quit rather than uproot their families and move. Despite aggressive recruiting in Kansas City and making many new hires, both USDA research agencies are now roughly half the size they were before the move.

"The agencies have been decimated. Their ability to perform the functions they were created to perform – it doesn't exist anymore," Evans says.

The number of economic reports published by ERS has dropped by half. NIFA administered university research isn't getting the guidance or scrutiny it once did. Experienced staffers like Desiree Rucker at NIFA say they are running on fumes.

"I've gone from running two or three programs to five, six, seven programs. We're two years behind. I can't keep up. In a situation where I'm just not happy anymore," Rucker says.

And people like Rucker are not easy to replace. The most experienced NIFA and ERS staffers are researchers working at the very top of their fields, often leading the national discussions on huge topics, such as how to feed the world in the midst of climate change.

"We've lost hundreds, if not thousands of staff years of expertise," says Laura Dodson, an ERS economist serving as acting vice president of the agency's employees union.

Dodson says the problem is grave, but that President Biden's nominee for secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, could quickly make a dent in it.

"I think a day-one priority for Vilsack could just be to simply remove the restriction on hiring to be in Kansas City and allow hiring to be in Kansas City or D.C. That would allow us to quickly get back some of our former staffers," Dodson says.

And there is a pool of former ERS and NIFA staffers in Washington who refused to move, often because they had family connections and spouses with good jobs in the area. Many of the former USDA researchers simply took jobs with other agencies or even other departments within USDA.

"I think many of the folks who didn't move out to Kansas city would jump at an opportunity to return," says former ERS staffer Seth Wechsler, an economist who quit the agency before the Kanas City move. "A job at ERS is something of a dream job."

Even with all the upheaval to move USDA researchers to Kansas City, the office building rented for them has sat largely empty since the pandemic hit. Wechsler says that proves a point.

"We're all working remotely now, so it seems reasonably cost-free to hire folks to work out of the D.C. metropolitan area," Wechsler says.

There are some complications though. Kansas City put up millions of dollars to subsidize the USDA's move, and the agencies signed a 15-year lease for office space. Also, lots of the new employees and some of the transfers like being in Kansas City, so forcing them to move back to Washington would cause another big disruption.

But former official Kathryn Evans says the whole move was based on politics, not objective analysis. She's excited about legislation designed to keep this kind of thing from happening again. It's called the Cost of Relocations Act, and Evans says it's a direct response to the forced move of the two USDA research agencies across the county.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3