Gale A. Buchanan and Catherine E. Woteki are former chief scientists of the Agriculture Department, where they served (2006-2009 and 2010-2017, respectively) as undersecretary for research, education and economics.
For the second year in a row, Trump administration leadership at the Agriculture Department proposed budget cuts and took other steps that hamper agencies within the department that supply the data and science needed to inform farm and food policy.
Whether the actions at the USDA reflect malice or ignorance, the results are the same: Policymakers in Congress and America’s farmers will lack the sound science they need to make decisions about how best to feed the nation, improve the rural economy and bolster U.S. agricultural exports.
As the USDA’s chief scientists from the previous two administrations, we are deeply concerned about the harm being done to scientific integrity at the department. We won’t speculate on the motives of the Trump administration’s leaders at the USDA, but we can say that these proposals came only after objective studies and analyses produced by economists and scientists at the USDA’s Economic Research Service, or ERS, conflicted with Trump administration policies.
For example, analysis by ERS economists on the effects of the December 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act stated, “Farm households with income between the 20th to 80th percentile see a modest reduction in their effective income tax rates, while wealthier households, the top 10 percent and top 1 percent, see the biggest decreases in their rates.”
The attempt to defund the ERS also offers some clues about what type of research the Trump administration seems to dislike. The budget suggested cuts to research into food assistance and nutrition, food safety, and analysis of farm, conservation and trade policy.
Numbers don’t lie, but you can attempt to hide them from Congress and the public, undermine them just enough to cast doubt or make them disappear altogether.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appears to be taking a multipronged approach toward dismantling the science that for years has undergirded policy decisions.
First, Perdue tried the direct approach: simply cutting the ERS budget. That approach failed last year when Congress restored the funds. The administration is trying again with its 2020 budget, proposing to cut $42 million — about 50 percent — from the ERS programs and reduce the number of full-time employees to 160 from 331.
Next, the Perdue-led USDA pushed a policy that required all published research from the department to be labeled “preliminary.” When scientists and economists publish in scientific journals, it is only after rigorous peer review. The “preliminary” label appears designed to undermine the research and strike a blow against evidence-based policymaking.
Finally, late last summer, Perdue shocked many researchers in food and agriculture with his decision to move the ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of the Washington area. The USDA sidestepped the usual processes for relocation, such as conducting a search through the government’s General Services Administration, and selected potential homes in North Carolina, Indiana and Kansas City, Mo..
Employees learned earlier this year that after the USDA chooses the relocation site, they would have 120 days to move or quit. Many of the economists that would be affected instead found new jobs at other agencies in the District — creating the sort of brain drain that the administration has seemed intent on prompting with its proposed budget cuts.
Perdue also proposed moving oversight of the ERS to the chief economist in his office. We strongly oppose this move because it makes the unit vulnerable to political pressure.
The agency now reports to the chief scientist — a post that remains unfilled after President Trump’s nominee, Sam Clovis, a conservative radio talk show host and former Iowa campaign aide with no background in science, withdrew from consideration in November 2017. Congress should demand that the Trump administration nominate, as soon as possible, a new, independent chief scientist who can obtain swift and broad, bipartisan support.
Food and agriculture in the United States face perennial challenges from a multitude of sources: pests, diseases, droughts, flooding, brutally competitive markets and trade disputes. It is disheartening to think that the science underpinning these vital contributors to the U.S. economy, and to the health and well-being of every American, is under threat from the very government department overseeing them.