USDA-ERS Professionals Concerned Over Relocation and Restrictions on Publication


Two issues are creating dissent and uncertainty in the ranks of USDA Economic Research Service scientists. In 2018, USDA Secretary Dr. Sonny Perdue proposed relocating the ERS from Washington to a location outside the metropolitan area in an attempt to improve communication and to reduce expenditure. The proposed action has been extensively criticized both in Congress and by the economics profession. Retention of the ERS within Washington is beneficial to both ERS scientists and the economic community given commonality of the interest and available university and governmental agencies.

Representative Chellie Bingree (D-ME) stated that the USDA has not yet provided cost-benefit analysis to support the contention that relocation of the agency will reduce costs. The relocation plan was due for release in mid-May after a vote by ERS employees to form a union.

The second issue of concern to ERS scientists relates to relocation of the agency from the Research Education and Economics Authority to the USDA Chief Economics Office. ERS scientists believe that the intent of the change will be to place greater control over publication of statistics and the direction of research.

Recently the USDA was seen to attempt to place restrictions on release of research which will henceforth require clearance from the USDA Chief Scientist. Dr. Catherine Smith Evans, former ERS Administrator, submitted testimony to the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee in late March stating relocation of the agency under the supervision of the USDA Chief Economist Office would “reduce assurances of the scientific integrity and objectivity of ERS statistics and research and threatens the accuracy of its critical statistical products”.

It is now apparent that the USDA Chief Scientist Dr. Chovonda Jacobs-Young requires scientists to add a declaratory statement in published reports which has the potential of degrading the value of data and conclusions. The proposed statement reads The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any Agency determination or policy.

 It is generally accepted that a manuscript submitted for publication to a peer-reviewed journal will be subject to evaluation by scientists in the field and if considered acceptable for publication, will be regarded as worthy and meritious.

The agricultural community, the federal government, financial institutions and exporters rely on accurate data on which to base decisions. The ERS is a pivotal agency in this regard and any attempt to reduce effectiveness or morale should be regarded with concern.