Former NIFA chief questions USDA decision to relocate institute

Sonny Ramaswamy, former director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is questioning the USDA’s decision to relocate the agency outside of Washington, D.C.

The former director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture is amping up his battle to halt the plan to move the USDA Economic Research Service and NIFA from Washington D.C.

“This is a vaunted, much imitated, much appreciated system that we’ve got,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, who was NIFA director from 2012 to 2018. “It’s been around ever since Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States, and Sonny Perdue and the Trump administration are trying to tear it down basically in one fell swoop. It’s really going to come back to haunt us.”

Ramaswamy is a former dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University. He is now president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in Seattle.

Ramaswamy said NIFA’s ability to quickly get funding where needed “would absolutely be paused.”

Ramaswamy predicts the move would impact funding for three to five years as it gets established in a new location, hindering the agency’s ability to quickly get funding where needed, such as for breeding new wheat varieties or emerging insect pests.

The USDA says the moves are designed to recruit highly qualified staff, put programs closer to stakeholders and benefit taxpayers through savings on employment costs and rent.

Ramaswamy and other critics first voiced their concern last fall over USDA’s proposal to move NIFA and ERS.

House Democrats last week re-introduced H.R. 1221, the “Agriculture Research Integrity Act,” designed to “prevent the relocation, politicization and weakening of federal agricultural research agencies.”

Language was also included in the 2019 fiscal year consolidated appropriations act, signed Feb. 15, to slow the restructuring.

Steve Pierson, director of science policy for the American Statistical Association, said the act is “mostly symbolic,” and that Perdue can still proceed, “although it would be kind of an audacious thing for him to do.”

“We are more concerned because there have been no course corrections from the secretary, despite this broad outcry from agriculture, food research and nutrition communities,” Pierson said. “We’re more concerned that they’re just going to plow ahead.”

A clearer explanation of the benefits of the moves has not been offered, Pierson said.

“They’ve kind of stuck to their original, one-page press release ... but when we’ve tried to look closely at that, it doesn’t add up, it doesn’t justify the upheaval of the USDA research arm,” he said.

Pierson is encouraged that the relocation is garnering bipartisan attention and concern.

Perdue, USDA and the Trump administration are proceeding despite “significant” pushback from various stakeholders and land-grant universities and Republicans and Democrats in Congress, Ramaswamy said.

Congress gave NIFA more than $100 million to modernize the grants management system, Ramaswamy said.

“Because of the decision that the secretary’s (Perdue) made, all of that’s down the toilet,” he said. “The people that were building it have already been moved or left. The agency is hemorrhaging their talent. Three to five people are leaving NIFA every week because of the uncertainty.”

In October, USDA announced that 136 parties in 36 states expressed interest in housing the agencies.

Interested parties in the West are the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, Newmark Knight Frank and the Lucerne Area Revitalization Association in California and the Tri-Cities in Washington.

Relocating the agency increases the risk of nearby interests receiving preference over broader interests, Ramaswamy said.

He expressed his displeasure at several land grant universities that applied to be sites for ERS and NIFA.

“Shame on them that they would be applicants to this,” he said. “What they’re doing is (enabling) this sort of situation that’s been created by the Trump administration. ... These are people who ought to know better, and all they see is a very short-sighted, selfish idea that they want to have this organization on their campus.”

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