March 3, 2020
The presidential primary season is in full swing and members of Congress are gearing up for the fall elections. This combination severely limits completion of any actual legislative work but, despite the distractions, some work is ongoing and will need to be completed.
Following release of the administration’s FY21 proposal, which provides a starting point, work is beginning on proposals in both houses that I hope will move forward because action is needed on a budget. FASS is currently working with the Animal Ag Coalition (AAC), the Friends of ARS, and the National Association for the Advancement of Animal Sciences (NAAAS) on broad coalition letters to House and Senate appropriators to highlight the importance of science and to advocate for the funding required to do the science needed by producers and the public. Congressional subcommittees will shortly begin hearings that should lead to provisions that will make up the final budget. It is useful for individual scientists to talk to their members of Congress to advocate for agriculture research funding and to provide a face of science, rather than allowing members to see it as some “ivory tower” initiative.
NIFA and ERS Vacancies Abound after Kansas City Move
While the USDA’s plan to move most National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Economic Research Service (ERS) employees from the Washington, DC, area to Kansas City was still under discussion, many individuals and organizations, including FASS, raised concerns about the likely impact on staffing. Despite these warnings, USDA proceeded with the move and both agencies are now severely understaffed.
According to a USDA spokesperson, ERS had 40 staffers in Kansas City and 66 in Washington as of February 1. These figures are in line with the 41 positions in the new offices and 72 in the Washington office that were listed in an internal memo on staffing status as of December 21. At NIFA, USDA said 87 were employed in the new offices and 18 remained permanently in Washington. Although NIFA vacancies have decreased slightly since October, the department had planned to have 315 employees in Kansas City. It is anticipated that the understaffing is having and will continue to have significant impacts on grants and grant administration. It will be useful to gather information to document those situations as we seek solutions for the future.
Both agencies are now using short-term contractors, re-employed retirees, and employees borrowed from other agencies to fill gaps while they continue hiring. According to USDA, among the employees at both agencies who declined to relocate, 61% took other positions in the department or within the federal government.
On the budget side, the White House continues to call for steep cuts to the agency’s funding and staff levels. Their FY21 budget request again calls for squeezing the number of full-time ERS positions from 329 to 187 and slashing funding by nearly 27%. Lawmakers have rejected similar proposals in the past and are expected to do so again. This is one of the reasons that stakeholder communication with Congress is important.
FDA Food Safety Plan
FDA plans to roll out its blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety in the first half of March, according to Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response. The FDA’s goal is to reduce rates of foodborne illnesses, which have remained flat in recent years, in part by modernizing the way the agency conducts investigations so it can more quickly pinpoint the origin of contamination. Enhanced traceability is a major component of the new plan. In addition, the blueprint will touch on data analysis tools that can help the FDA identify potential food safety risks, how the agency can adapt its work to evolving food supply chains (e.g., e-commerce), and how to educate farmers, food companies, and consumers about best practices to prevent foodborne illnesses. Additional funding needs have not yet been disclosed. Watch the FDA site (https://www.fda.gov/food/food-industry/new-era-smarter-food-safety) for details as the plan is rolled out.
The FASS Science Policy Committee will be meeting soon to continue work on updating our policy statements. We welcome suggestions of other areas that should be addressed. As noted above, the budget cycle for 2021 has begun. We will be working with coalition partners to actively advocate for agriculture research. As the elections approach, take time to learn more about the candidates in your state and their positions on science. We need more members of Congress who will support and advocate for the use of science in policy making.
Please contact me if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions on any of these issues. We will provide additional information as it becomes available. We need to work together to maintain a strong and effective national research effort. If you are interested in communicating occasionally with members of Congress on issues related to animal agriculture, we are looking for FASS science policy advocates. Please contact me for details.
Ken Olson, PhD, PAS
FASS Science Policy Coordinator