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 questioning the USDA’s decision to relocate the institute outside of Washington, D.C.

NIFA provides funding for and pools together collaboration on agricultural research, said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of NIFA from 2012 to 2018.

Moving the agency will take two to five years, he said, potentially impacting funding for research and deterring state researchers from taking on projects without NIFA funding.

The USDA recently announced most NIFA and Economic Research Service employees will be relocated outside of the Washington, D.C., area by the end of 2019. New locations have yet to be determined.

According to the USDA, the move is being done:

• to improve USDA’s ability to “attract and retain” highly qualified staff. The press release cites “significant turnover” and difficulty recruiting employees to the Washington D.C., area, due to the high cost of living and long commutes. • to place the programs closer to stakeholders, “most of whom live and work far from the Washington, D.C., area.”

• to benefit American tax payers with “significant savings on employment costs and rent,” allowing more employees to be retained even in the face of tightening budgets.

Ramaswamy worries moving NIFA will “destroy the most vaunted and envied research and extension system in the world.”

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

During his tenure at NIFA, Ramaswamy said recruiting and keeping qualified staff from universities and the private sector was never a problem. The agency received tens to hundreds of applications for every position advertised, he said.

The normal rate of attrition at NIFA was around 5 to 7 percent per year, Ramaswamy said.

Employee vacancies stacked up during the process in both the Obama and Trump administrations, but under the Trump administration, NIFA had to wait for approval to advertise open positions, Ramaswamy said.

“When I left, we had already 66 vacancies,” he said. Ramaswamy’s position with NIFA ended in May.

Moving NIFA to a location closer to stakeholders creates a potential conflict of interest, Ramaswamy said. NIFA serves public and private institutions seeking research funding. Locating NIFA closer to universities in Ames, Iowa, or Pullman, Wash., invites concern that the nearest researchers have undue influence on NIFA priorities, he said.

Ramaswamy has long championed the need to address farmer profitability and productivity through “top-notch science.”

“As it is, agricultural science takes a back seat,” he said. “Saying you’re going to move the agency to some place out in the boonies, away from where the action’s at, defeats the whole sense of the kind of science that’s needed. Congress and the administration (are) in Washington, D.C., and the agency has to be there, sitting at the table, being part of the conversations ... rather than being far away and not even part of the conversation.”

Ramaswamy also worries about the cost of relocating and rebuilding NIFA, including the loss of institutional memory of staff members who aren’t likely to move to a new place.

“I don’t know what (moving NIFA outside of Washington D.C.) is supposed to accomplish,” said Joe Anderson, Potlatch, Idaho wheat, farmer and past president of Idaho Grain Producers Association. “That institute is the lifeblood of the land-grant university system. In my mind, it needs to have the kind of visibility an institution that provides major funding deserves.”

Anderson said he believes Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wants to streamline the process and become more efficient and responsive to farmer and rancher needs.

“It would not be something I would recommend, but I’m not the secretary of agriculture,” Anderson said.

“I wouldn’t anticipate the effectiveness of ERS and research at NIFA would be hampered,” said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission. “I wouldn’t expect that that would be the case. It’s hard for me to comment because I don’t know a lot of the details.”

Ramaswamy said he hopes Congress and the agriculture industry ask questions about the move and offer a “call to action” against the relocation.

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