October 12, 2018
Controversy, major hearings, and more controversy highlight the news stories coming from Capitol Hill and circulating on social media. They draw headlines, attract attention, and seem to limit the ability to complete other things that have major impacts on the country, agriculture, and the research community. The September 30 deadline for the Farm Bill and the USDA budget came and went without final resolution on either. Meanwhile, the announced plans by USDA to move NIFA and ERS from the DC area continue to move forward while generating increased opposition. These are issues where FASS has been working to provide a voice for the science community and animal agriculture.
The Farm Bill—What Happened?
The Farm Bill is in conference, but the September 30 deadline came and went with no final agreement on any of the titles in the bill. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has generated most of the news, but significant issues remain on conservation funding and support for farmers. Right now, nearly 40 programs with mandatory funding of $2.8 billion over the five-year life of the bill are at risk of seeing their funding lapse or not have a baseline beyond fiscal 2018. The House Ag Committee has provided some details on the programs that can be seen by clicking here.
Both Houses have left for recess before the midterm elections. The committee chairs and ranking members along with staff have committed to work over the break to find solutions, but nothing will be completed in the short term. Looking ahead, potential options include the following:
- Agreeing to a Conference Report to be presented and voted on following the midterm elections. It has not been possible to agree to a report yet, so this will be difficult.
- A short-term extension to avoid the “cliff” at the end of December that would end many programs but would require that negotiations start over with the new Congress and potentially new committee membership and leadership following the election.
- Extending the 2014 Farm Bill for three years to provide more opportunity to develop a path forward.
FASS will continue to monitor the situation and provide input and advocate for ag research as the process moves forward. Stay tuned for more news as it develops.
The Ag Budget
USDA and several other agencies were in danger of needing to shut down as their budgets were set to expire on September 30, but this was staved off for the immediate future. On September 28, President Trump signed into law a spending bill that will provide full-year appropriations for several federal agencies and stopgap funding though a continuing resolution (CR) that provides funding at fiscal 2018 levels through December 7 for agencies that have not yet received regular appropriations. This includes the departments of Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce, Justice, State, Interior, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who would join DHS and agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and General Services Administration (GSA) in operating under a CR until early December. Those agencies account for 25% of annual discretionary spending. Congressional negotiators are in conference over a third “minibus” that includes funding for Agriculture, Interior, Treasury, Transportation, and HUD as well as OPM and GSA. It remains to be seen if agreements can be worked out to move forward after the midterm elections.
USDA Plans to Move ERS and NIFA
The plans for reorganization of the USDA continue to move forward, generating questions and concerns. The plan includes moving the Economic Research Service (ERS) from USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area 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 of Washington, DC, to be completed by the end of 2019. Shortly after announcement of the relocation plans, USDA issued a request for expressions of interest in hosting the headquarters and personnel for the two agencies. The original deadline for submission of applications was September 14. This was extended to October 15.
FASS joined with many other groups in sponsoring a webinar featuring several past agency administrators who raised significant concerns about the planned move. Panelist recommendations for USDA included the following:
- Delaying any further actions on relocation until questions can be addressed
- Convening a formal public comment period
- Providing data and analysis used to inform the decision to relocate
Panelist recommendations for Congress included the following:
- Holding oversight hearings
- Requesting an independent study with a cost-benefit analysis of the plan
- Delaying or prohibiting relocation and reorganization until questions and concerns are addressed in appropriations and/or the Farm Bill
They encouraged scientists to be informed and speak out as the plans will have significant impacts on future research. The slides have been posted and a video recording of the webinar is available online. Members of Congress from both parties have also raised concern, but USDA indicated that they will continue to move forward.
NIFA Invites Input on Emerging Needs and Opportunities
As reported last month, the USDA 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 are scheduled:
- 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 5:00 p.m. A live webcast will be available for each session, transcribed, and made available for playback. Session attendees must register via the NIFA Listens website. In addition, written comments may be provided electronically through the stakeholder input form on the website or emailed to NIFAlistens@nifa.usda.gov (link sends e-mail) until November 30. Feedback is welcome through any of our submission methods and will be gathered throughout the initiative.
Nominee for Undersecretary of Research, Education, and Economics Announced
Dr. Scott Hutchins has been nominated to become the next Undersecretary of Research, Education, and Economics (REE) of the USDA. Dr. Hutchins is a renowned scientist and an expert in the field of integrated pest management. You can find more on his background at https://entomology.unl.edu/faculty/hutchins. It will be later before the nomination can be considered.
FASS Inc. Science Policy Coordination Activities – September 2018
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 and webinars relative to the Farm Bill and USDA’s plans to move ERS and NIFA. We have also done radio and video interviews on the subject. Other scientists and interested persons are encouraged to speak to their members of congress on these issues, which will have long-term impacts on our ability to do needed research now and in the future. The following talking point 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 close 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 general 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–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