September 12, 2018
Controversy and major hearings highlight the news stories coming from the capitol and circulating on social media. They draw headlines and attract attention, but other things are happening that will have major impacts on the country and on the agriculture and research communities. We are nearing the September 30 deadlines on the Farm Bill and USDA budget while at the same time having an unexpected announcement from USDA of the movement of two of their major research agencies from the DC area. These are issues on which FASS has been working to provide a voice for the science community and animal agriculture.
The Farm Bill: Where Are We?
The Farm Bill is moving, but there is still much to do—here is a quick look at where we stand. The Farm Bill Conference Committee held their first meeting on September 5. During that session, all 47 members of the committee made opening statements that highlighted their priorities. There was general recognition that:
- A bill needs to be passed on time, by September 30, to provide certainty for farmers. There was also general recognition that this will require compromise; the trick will be to find the compromises that will allow the bill to pass both houses and be signed into law.
- There is limited time to reach consensus on the bill. Several members noted that at the time of the meeting, there were 10 legislative days remaining, with many other critical issues to address.
- There are still significant differences that need to be resolved over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), conservation funding, and support for farmers.
There was general support for animal disease preparedness and response programs. A few members did voice support for research
The current Farm Bill expires on September 30, so action is needed by then on a new bill or an extension of the current legislation. A complicating factor is that a potential government shutdown also looms on September 30, when the current budgets for USDA and several other agencies run out. Stay tuned for more.
USDA Plans to Move ERS and NIFA
On August 8, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced plans for reorganization of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Economic Research Service (ERS), currently under USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area, is to be realigned with the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) under the Office of the Secretary. Additionally, most employees of ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) are to be relocated outside of the National Capital Region. USDA expects the movement of the employees outside Washington, DC, to be completed by the end of 2019. Shortly after announcing the relocation plans, USDA issued a request for expressions of interest (EOI) in hosting the headquarters and personnel for the two agencies. The original deadline for submission of applications was September 14, but it has been extended to October 15.
Many groups from the agricultural and science communities, including FASS, as well as past agency administrators are raising significant concerns about the planned move or have come out strongly against the decision. They are asking at a minimum that there be a pause to allow input and assessment of the real impact that the proposed move would have on the ability of the agencies to fulfil their mission now and in the future.
Individual Scientist Input on NIFA and ERS Reorganization
USDA’s planned reorganization and relocation of ERS and NIFA are raising concerns for many because there was no opportunity for public input and no data provided to justify the changes. FASS has been active in coalition discussion of the plans. As a result, FASS and ADSA are included in several group letters asking that any action on relocation of NIFA and ERS be delayed until the short- and long-term impacts can be evaluated. Group/organizational input is good, but it is also important that individual scientists weigh in as the important stakeholders that they are on these issues.
The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Organic Farming Research Foundation have been active participants in discussion of the group plans. As an extension of the efforts, they teamed up to draft a letter from scientists and researchers to Congress, asking them to support sound science and agriculture research by opposing the proposed reorganization until more information is shared and until stakeholders have the opportunity for input. The link to the letter and sign-on is here. Please note that the letter is set up to be signed by scientists as an affected group of stakeholders rather than the general public so it does ask that we indicate our degrees and specialties, etc.
I believe the letter is self-explanatory but feel free to contact Ken Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
NIFA Invites Input on Emerging Needs and Opportunities
The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is soliciting stakeholder input on the emerging needs and opportunities in food and agricultural sciences through the “NIFA Listens: Investing in Science to Transform Lives” initiative.
The listening sessions are opportunities to provide feedback on these questions:
- In your field, what is the most-needed breakthrough in science/technology that would advance your agricultural enterprise?
- When considering all of agriculture, what is the greatest challenge that should be addressed through NIFA’s research, education, and extension?
- What is your top priority in food and agricultural research, extension, or education that NIFA should address?
Four regional in-person listening sessions will be held:
- Oct. 11, Hartford, Connecticut (RSVP by Thursday, Oct. 4)
- Oct. 18, New Orleans, Louisiana (RSVP by Thursday, Oct. 11)
- Oct. 25, Minneapolis, Minnesota (RSVP by Thursday, Oct. 18)
- Nov. 1, Albuquerque, New Mexico (RSVP by Thursday, Oct. 25)
The NIFA Listens website is an information hub that will be used for the sessions. Each session is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. and end no later than 5 p.m. Live webcasts will be available for each session, transcribed, and made available for playback. Session attendees must register via NIFA Listens. In addition, written comments may be provided electronically through the stakeholder input form on the website or emailed to NIFAlistens@nifa.usda.gov until November 30. Feedback is welcome through any of our submission methods and will be gathered throughout the initiative.
New NIFA Director Announced
President Donald J. Trump recently announced his intent to appoint J. Scott Angle of Alabama to be director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in the Department of Agriculture for a term of six years. Angle received his BS in agronomy and MS in soil science at the University of Maryland. He obtained his PhD from the University of Missouri with an emphasis on soil microbiology. Angle worked for 24 years as a professor of soil science and administrator for the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station and Maryland Cooperative Extension at the University of Maryland. His work focused on heavy metals and their interaction with the environment. In 2005, he moved to Athens, Georgia, where he served as dean and director of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia for 10 years. He is a fellow in the American Society of Agronomy and the Soil Science Society of America. He is also a Fulbright Fellow, having worked at the Rothamsted Research Experimental Station in the United Kingdom. Most recently, Angle was the president and CEO of the International Fertilizer Development Center.
FASS Inc. Science Policy Coordination Activities – August
As noted above, there has been a great deal of activity related to the Farm Bill and other activities during the past month. We have been involved in a variety of activities related to them. We participated in conference calls on the announcement of USDA’s plans as well as coalition calls to discuss action related to the plan and other actions related to the Farm Bill. We have been involved in drafting a FASS letter and assisting with coalition letters that raise concerns about the move, support inclusion of research funding in the Farm Bill, and support the animal disease preparedness and response in the Farm Bill. Copies of the letters are available in the Science Policy area of FASS.org. We also had opportunities to provide comments on the need for funding of agricultural research and raise concern over USDA’s plans to move ERS and NIFA at two town hall meetings held by Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is a member of the House Oversight Committee. Other scientists and interested persons are encouraged to speak out to their members of congress on these issues that will have long-term effects on our ability to do needed research now and in the future. The following may help:
Suggested NIFA and ERS Talking Points
- The interaction of NIFA administrators and program leaders with personnel from other USDA agencies as well as agencies outside of USDA such as FDA, EPA, the Department of Energy, NSF, and others is critical to planning and meeting future research needs. This is best accomplished by being located in the DC area in proximity to these agencies.
- Interaction with stakeholders is vital to identifying research needs. This is facilitated by being located in the DC area so that stakeholders can meet with key NIFA personnel on the same visit in which they meet with personnel from other agencies.
- No documented evidence has been provided of difficulty in filling positions at NIFA other than difficulty in obtaining authorization to fill the positions. On the other hand, the forced relocation of staff from the DC area is certain to result in the loss of significant numbers of experienced, well-qualified agency staff and support personnel, resulting in lower efficiency and productivity.
- NIFA is a national research granting agency. To maintain the respect and trust of stakeholders and the public in the funding decisions they make, it is critical that NIFA be recognized as independent and unbiased. Their current location in DC facilitates this.
- ERS has broadened its research portfolio to provide greater coverage of department issues and policies as well as a more integrated approach to research that includes expanded use of social sciences in the studies. Loss of key personnel and their current location near collaborators would severely limit their research in the future. Moving the organization away from REE to a more political part of USDA could also jeopardize their autonomy and the perception of their work as being that of an independent agency.
Please contact us with questions and ideas. We will provide additional information as it becomes available. We need to work together to maintain a strong and effective national research effort.
A reminder, you can check out the FASS SPC Webinar “The Impact and Role of Public Funding in Agriculture and the US Economy” by going to https://www.fass.org/Science-Policy and scrolling to and clicking on “March–FASS Science Policy Committee Webinar.” We encourage you to share the link with others who may have an interest in research.
Ken Olson, PhD, PAS
FASS Science Policy Coordinator
John P McNamara, PhD
Chair, FASS SPC