IN ITS war on science and statistics, the Trump administration has a habit of sidelining inconvenient information. Last week, it was at it again.
On Thursday, the Agriculture Department announced a decision to relocate two of its research agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, from Washington to the Kansas City region. The Economic Research Service, which investigates the economics of food, farming, natural resources and rural America, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which was established as part of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, play a key role in providing the data essential for honest policy-making.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue initially declared an intention to move these sub-agencies 10 months ago but didn’t specify a location then. The USDA now says the move would put the agencies closer to the agricultural heartland while saving money both for taxpayers and for employees, because Washington is an expensive city. While the rationale may seem plausible , in reality the implications are worrying.
In theory, there’s no reason such agencies couldn’t function well in Kansas City or elsewhere. After all, as with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, this would hardly be the first time a government agency operates from beyond Washington. But the way this operation has been managed, with insufficient warning and explanation, suggests an intention by the administration to encourage qualified analysts to leave government and stifle independent and objective research.
If carried out, the move will disrupt ongoing scientific research and displace several hundred federal employees with valuable experience. Since the abrupt announcement last August, many of the agencies’ top economists and scientists have quit.
The investigations carried out by these agencies have long underpinned decisions by Congress and by American farmers, much as research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics underpins decisions in others parts of the economy. And much of the information produced by the Economic Research Service has indeed been inconvenient for the administration, as it has illustrated the ills wrought by President Trump’s trade wars and how small farmers were helped only marginally by the 2017 Republican tax overhaul.
Democratic members of the House and Senate have introduced the Agriculture Research Integrity Act, which would bar the move. They are right to do so, but it would be best if the USDA took the hint and retreated from this abrupt and ill-considered relocation. The better way to get sunnier data would be to develop better policies.