The following editorial was published by the Des Moines Register on Aug. 22:
From stoking unsubstantiated fears about vaccines to suggesting global warming is a Chinese hoax, President Trump has shown he isn’t a man of science. Or a man who respects science.
Now his administration has orchestrated a way to get rid of vital government workers who research everything from food security to climate change: Move their offices 1,000 miles from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.
Though one may not be able to conclusively know this is a tactic to purge scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Secretary Sonny Perdue, it certainly is the result.
In June, Perdue announced plans to relocate hundreds of workers at the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) from the nation’s capital to the Midwest. The ERS examines issues including the rural economy, international trade and food assistance for poor Americans. NIFA provides grants for research.
The secretary argued the goal of the move was to save money and bring researchers closer to stakeholders. Except many are understandably unable or unwilling to move their lives and families across the country.
In July, the USDA reported fewer than 40% of those affected accepted their transfer assignments. That means the loss of hundreds of workers, along with years of their knowledge and experience.
And that seems to be exactly what the Trump administration wanted, if White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney can be taken at his word.
Mulvaney recently told a group of Republicans the plan to relocate hundreds of jobs “is a wonderful way to streamline government,” as it is “nearly impossible” to fire federal workers and many would not move to Kansas City.
The Union of Concerned Scientists rightly characterized the move as a “blatant attack on science” that is part of a systematic effort by this administration to hinder the USDA’s ability to produce objective information. In addition to budget cuts to eliminate “research that’s inconvenient to its interest,” it is also proactively “driving off scientists who conduct that very research,” said an organization official.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the workers, said evidence suggests the relocation “is an attempt to hollow out and dismantle USDA science that helps farmers and protects our food supply.”
That’s the last thing farmers need right now. They are already struggling, thanks in part to tariffs imposed by this administration. The move could set back research relied upon by food producers.
And why was Kansas City chosen to enjoy the economic benefits of a new federal research facility? Why not Des Moines? Why not Ames?
Former Iowa governor and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told a Register editorial writer that care will need to be taken to ensure there is no perception of bias or favoritism given to universities in close proximity to the new location.
“NIFA awards hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants every year. If there appears to be a disproportionate amount going to one state or university where the new office is located, it may result in serious questions being raised as to why that is happening,” he said.
Vilsack also noted some of the most important information from the ERS is a report about the economic state of rural places and people. “It is incredibly important because it helps make the case for the need for a rural revitalization plan.” That is particularly relevant to Iowa.
In addition to the relocation being a bad idea, it may not even be legal. The USDA’s own inspector general issued a report this month saying the department may have broken the law by not obtaining congressional approval.
The 2018 omnibus spending bill approved by Congress and signed by Trump requires the USDA to notify appropriations committees before using funds to relocate an office or workers. The inspector general pointed to a section of the law that requires congressional approval before spending money for relocation. That approval was never secured.
Yet the Trump administration is proceeding with an unnecessary move that jeopardizes research related to agriculture, rural economic development and this country’s food supply. In other words, some of the most important work government does.