Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Plan to move Economic Research Service out of USDA's HQ draws critics, including a former chief economist

Screenshot of ERS Amber Waves home page
The Daily Yonder is sounding the alarm about Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's plan to move the Economic Research Service out of USDA headquarters in Washington and put it under the direction of the department's chief economist.

USDA says moving the center to ERS "will reduce the cost of operations, make it easier to attract staff, and put researchers in closer contact with 'stakeholders'," the Yonder reports. USDA also cited “significant turnover” at ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is also being relocated: “It has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, D.C., area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes.”

"Critics say the change is an effort to shake up the research agency and diminish ERS’s role in providing data that informs decision making," the Yonder reports. "They also say that moving ERS into the Office of the Chief Economist (where it was located once before) will increase the political pressure placed on the agency’s researchers."

Eric Katz reports for Government Executive, "The transition has raised eyebrows in the agriculture and statistics communities, with some experts questioning the Trump administration’s motives. The White House proposed slashing the Economic Research Service budget nearly in half in the president's fiscal 2019 budget," and cutting NIFA "a comparatively modest 8 percent."

The Yonder and The Rural Blog regularly use ERS research and publications such as Amber WavesRural America at a Glance and the Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America. As the Yonder says, "There is no comparable public source of information about the economic and social conditions of rural America." It has compiled a list of comments that it received or that were published in other news outlets about the ERS move and the related relocation of NIFA.

One comment is from Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Yonder: "ERS may be the last stand of reliable information in this government that has not been nudged, fudged, or sawed up for some special interest. You can trust the work product from ERS. You can’t always say that about other parts of the government.”

Joseph Glauber, who was chief economist from 2007 through 2014, told Government Executive, “I don’t think the independence is compromised by reporting to a chief economist,” but relocation of ERS would cause problems. “My fear is it will just result in a big loss of personnel,” he said, adding that he would “want my economists close by.” He said they would miss important meetings, and it “just doesn’t make a lot of sense” for chief economists to travel hundreds of miles to visit employees.

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