The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to relocate two major divisions from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City. If no one stops it, we are likely to lose not only top scientific talent focused on some of the most important threats facing our planet today, but also our ability to benefit from the massive investment our country has made in this agency.
On June 13, the USDA announced that its Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture would relocate to Kansas City. More than 500 employees were given one month — until July 15— to decide whether they would accept the relocation or agree to be fired. Scientists in these divisions are responsible for, among other things, research that will be essential for maintaining food security as agricultural practices face the need to evolve because of increasingly dramatic climate change.
There’s nothing wrong with relocating an office — it happens all the time, in all types of industries. In this case, government officials have justified the move by saying it will reduce costs. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue even actually claimed the move would help USDA “attract and retain highly qualified staff.”
But this relocation appears to primarily be a pretext to terminate a boatload of researchers. Their scientific work challenges the agenda of the Trump administration, which pushes anti-science agendas and aims to subvert conclusions that climate change is either serious or caused by human activity.
One thing that arouses suspicion is the absurdly short notice. Would anyone likely upend their entire family based on just a few weeks’ consideration? There’s also the cost: while USDA claims the move will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in the next 15 years, a group of agriculture-focused economists say it will actually cost a lot of money — as much as $182 million.
Members of Congress have been racing the clock to block the USDA move, but it appears their efforts will be unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the union representing these workers said that 80% of them will likely refuse the relocation. Pundits and editorial writers have decried the loss of these scientists at a time that is absolutely critical for adjusting to and reining in the devastating effects of climate change on our ability to grow food. We need, right now, the best minds focused on this challenge and we cannot risk losing any of them.
But I’d like to draw some attention to the longer-term negative consequences of this situation. Chief among them: brain drain. Government jobs are a tough sell among scientists. They typically make less money than their counterparts in academia or industry. They get no summer break. And, unlike academic scientists, many government-employed researchers are not allowed to top up their income with external consulting projects. In addition to the personal financial sacrifice, there’s also the red tape. Career-advancing opportunities like attending conferences and presenting research are much less available to scientists at government agencies, which have strict travel and budget rules that often prevent these activities.
The scientists who take government jobs and stay with them despite this litany of drawbacks are extremely dedicated to their missions, whether it’s studying the effects of climate change or delivering the best human genome sequence. When these USDA scientists are lost, they likely won’t be replaced. And, should a more science-friendly administration undo this relocation in the future, it will be impossible to bring this talent pool back together; researchers who don’t want to move to Kansas City right now will be snapped up by the private sector, or they’ll move to universities where their focus on agriculture and climate change may shift to other areas. An entire generation of scientists could be gone in a blink, robbing the public of the benefit of their accumulated knowledge and undermining what would have likely been future decades of fruitful, public-sector research.
Taxpaying Americans have made a considerable investment in the researchers in these USDA institutes. We’ve spent money to hire them, train them, and support their scientific investigations. As long as they are with the USDA, we will also profit from that investment as they come up with new ideas for improving agricultural practices to adapt to or help overcome the effects of climate change. The minute they are forced out, we lose our investment and any chance of benefiting from it.
Sadly, we are likely to face at least some of this loss even if the USDA changes its plans and keeps the jobs where they are. For people who are already in challenging jobs, this level of uncertainty will be enough to convince some that they’d be better off finding more secure positions where they can’t be used as political pawns. In other words, the damage has already been done. What we’ll find out in the coming weeks is how widespread the fallout is.