WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic senators on Thursday slammed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plan to relocate hundreds of its economists and other researchers from Washington to the Midwest, saying it will hurt the agency’s research capabilities by prompting many to resign.
The plan, unveiled last year, would move 547 workers for the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) divisions to Kansas City by September. Those services provide data used to make policy decisions, and support research on a wide range of issues affecting agriculture.
The USDA said the move would save taxpayers nearly $300 million over 15 years and bring the divisions closer to farmers, but critics have said it is part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to weaken science.
President Donald Trump has been consistently criticized for instructing his administration to scrap or delay scientific research on issues such as climate change, the environment and healthcare, while rolling back regulation and promoting the fossil fuels industries.
“This is not a relocation. It is a demolition,” Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow said in a hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee, adding that the USDA data showed at least 63% of the employees affected were planning to leave.
This will hurt the agency’s scientific research capabilities, Stabenow said. “Rebuilding an entire workforce will take time. In the interim, these agencies will not have the capacity to do their important work.”
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont said: “The move has already dealt a significant blow to the Department’s scientific and economic research capacity, and many employees in these agencies will tell you they believe this is the intent: to undermine research.”
The USDA has defended the move.
“I can assure you, we will seek more opportunities to expand the influence of ERS,” Scott Hutchins, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics. “This is our goal, to make this an opportunity to allow this agency to grow and be sustainable in the long-term,” he told the hearing.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Richard Chang