Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Ag research casualty of Trump's war on science, statistics, and informed decision-making

USDA scientists quitting
Trump looks on with approval
while USDA boss guts USDA research

Why is Trump smirking? Because Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is doing Trump’s bidding by gutting Ag research.

Last night Rachel Maddow reported that the USDA climate science quash squanders US science leadership. Rachel’s reporting includes a lot of history of the United States’ scientific contributions to world health. For example, when Alexander Fleming needed a way of mass-producing his discovery, penicillin, he brought it to the US and the US scientists delivered thereby saving thousands of lives during World War II. It is this noble, grand tradition that Trump is willing to destroy for all time to come. Why? Because he finds current research, notably on climate change, politically inconvenient.

The short of it is the choice offered to USDA scientists - move or get fired. Faced with the announced action many of them have already quit and, presumably, are seeking other employment. You cannot blame them. If you were one of those affected, you would do well to find another job right quick. A reasonable assumption is that the job market cannot absorb the hundreds of scientists being let go. Therefore, if you were one of those scientists, the rationale thing to do is to get into the job market ASAP. And that appears to be happening.

Before proceeding, let me remind you of my X/AntiX hypothesis. If you would destroy agency X, appoint a leader AntiX. That applies, without exception I think, to Trump’s entire cabinet. It applies here.

Following are excerpts from three of the Post’s reports on this disaster.

Back at the end of May, Catherine Rampell reported on Trump’s war on statistics in The Trump administration’s war on statistics isn’t slowing down. One target is particularly disturbing.

Don’t like the numbers? Invent new numbers instead.

Or make it harder to collect trustworthy numbers next time.

Or just put the squeeze on the number crunchers themselves.

Slowly but surely, the Trump administration has been chipping away at the independence and integrity of our federal statistical agencies, whose data is critical to keeping our democracy functioning and our economy healthy. So far as we know, the administration still hasn’t managed to pierce the citadel of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the independent agency that releases jobs and inflation numbers) or Bureau of Economic Analysis (the independent agency that tabulates gross domestic product). But around the edges, it’s trying to compromise lots of other official government data.

[One of these “edges” is the] Economic Research Service, the independent statistical agency housed within the Agriculture Department.

Its researchers compile and analyze data related to crops, yes, but also poverty, food stamps, trade and climate change, among other politically sensitive issues. And right now these economists and statisticians are quitting in droves. That’s because the Trump administration abruptly decided to relocate hundreds of positions. Workers were told that if they want to keep their jobs, they have until the end of September to move their families to . . . a still as-yet-unnamed new city. [We now know that the relocation target is Kansas City.]

The relocation is, ostensibly, to save money. But it sure seems like a backdoor purge of an independent agency that has produced analyses inconvenient to the administration, including on the harms caused by Trump’s trade wars and how little the 2017 GOP tax overhaul has helped small farmers.

Presumably the Trump administration has calculated that doctoring statistical models, skewing survey results and trying to strong-arm statisticians will serve its near-term political interests. In the long term, however, sowing distrust in government data only reduces the ability of policymakers, businesses and voters to make informed decisions.

Of course, maybe that was the goal all along.

You bet it was … and is!

We now know that Kansas City is the planned site for the relocation.

The Editorial Board of the Washington Post presents a harsh critique of Trump’s move against agricultural research agencies: Moving USDA research agencies is part of Trump’s war on science and statistics.

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.

The Washington Post has an update: These USDA employees face a stark choice: Move to Kansas City or be fired noting that Relocation could seriously disrupt the work of two agencies

When Perdue announced the moves to the Kansas City area, he said, “We did not undertake these relocations lightly, and we are doing it to enhance long-term sustainability and success of these agencies. The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run.”

But the USDA estimate of nearly $300 million in savings over 15 years is way off, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee-based Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. Instead, it would cost taxpayers between $83 and $182 million, the analysis found. The USDA underestimated the true cost in part because it did not account for “the lost value of research from staffers who resign or retire rather than move,” the association reported.

A group of Democratic senators, including all four from Maryland and Virginia, has introduced legislation to keep the headquarters of the two agencies within the D.C. area.

Andrew Crane-Droesch, an economist with the research service, said he is not moving and is now looking for another job in the D.C. area. “Definitely the choice we face is move to Kansas City or lose our jobs,” he said. “I’m certainly not happy. I love my job, but I can’t move to Kansas City, and moreover, I don’t want to even if I could.”

Like Crane-Droesch, these staffers “have families, they are part of a community and they’ve been dedicated public servants,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations. “They deserve better than having such a radical and consequential do-or-die decision, which is hardly a fair choice, thrown at them at the last minute.”

They deserve better and so does our country.

No comments:

Post a Comment