Over a dozen USDA employees stood and turned their backs on Sonny Perdue Thursday as the U.S. agriculture secretary detailed the relocation of two of the federal agency's key research offices out of Washington, D.C.
Purdue was speaking at an "all hands meeting" of employees of the two agencies in question: the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which both recently unionized to protest the reorganization. ERS and NIFA, as Union of Concerned Scientists economist Rebecca Boehm recently wrote, perform work "which directly supports farmers while protecting our food."
At least three agency employees, a video of the protest from CNN shows, shook their heads when Perdue said their primary concern about the imminent move was how it would be a "personal disruption." The Hill has video of a portion of the protest as well.
While the move out of Washington, D.C.—seen as a move to sideline science—was expected for nearly a year, employees found out only earlier in the morning through a letter (pdf) that their new location would be the Kansas City Region.
The heart of the problem isn't the choice of city. As Mike Lavender of UCS's food and environment program said on Twitter, it is "Anti-farmer, anti-science, and anti-research no matter the selected location." He also noted its widespread opposition, including by over 70 bipartisan agriculture leaders, over 100 organizations, and over 1,000 scientists.
Thursday's quiet protest elicited expressions of solidarity with the workers from UCS and Farm Aid.
Yesterday, #USDA employees stood in defiance as @SecretarySonny announced the next step in his reckless reorganization of two key research agencies. We stand with them against this anti-science, anti-farmer, and anti-research reorganization proposed. https://t.co/H7fkeeHDVb
— Union of Concerned Scientists (@UCSUSA) June 14, 2019
Farm Aid stands in solidarity with USDA staff at NIFA & ERS. We rely on their research to create content that will help people understand farming and strengthen family farmers. We believe in science-based research & data. It's critical for farmers & everyone who supports them. https://t.co/7dZzqqk0OE
— Farm Aid (@FarmAid) June 13, 2019
The booting of the agencies out of D.C.—which the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy previously called "an insult to world class researchers"—also sparked renewed statements of outrage.
"This is an unacceptable attack on agricultural research and science that is likely to push experienced researchers out of public service," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) on Twitter. "This not only hurts these workers and their families, but could have devastating impacts on America's farmers as well."
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Another Democrat, Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, said the relocation is politically motivated.
Many of @USDA staffers believe their relocation is an effort to silence their research into topics that do not align with the Trump administration’s political agenda, including the study of climate change and benefits of low-income food assistance. https://t.co/Ffsl5qyVth
— Chellie Pingree (@chelliepingree) June 13, 2019
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) warned that the move would unleash "significant collateral damage."
"Despite claims that this relocation will better serve American agriculture, the truth is that USDA's decision has led to a mass exodus of highly trained experts from both ERS and NIFA," NSAC said in a statement. "The resulting agency brain drain will ultimately cripple both agencies' research functions, an effect that will be further exacerbated by isolating the offices more than a thousand miles away from key partners and collaborators in the nation's capital."
As for Perdue's framing of the relocation as one that would generate "savings of nearly $300 million nominally over a 15-year lease term on employment costs and rent or about $20 million per year," the American Statistical Association (ASA) said that's a "post-hoc justification" that doesn't hold water.
"We all pay for a dismantled Economic Research Service that will never get back to its current number-three ranking in the world for agricultural economics research," the group said.
"We will also pay for USDA's research funding agency being dissociated from the planning and collaborations that happen in person in Washington," the group added, "with funding agencies for health, energy, international development, basic research and more."
UCS analyst Karen Perry Stillerman put the matter in stark terms.
"Our overarching concern," she told the Washington Post, "is what happens to the important scientific work that these two agencies perform at USDA on behalf of the public, on behalf of farmers and rural communities, and everyone who eats."