Drowning public-sector research in a bathtub

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The cynical lobbyist Grover Norquist is quoted as saying “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Regardless of the moral bankruptcy of his agenda and worldview, at least Norquist was honest enough to state his objective outright. The dream of drowning government in the bathtub, at least when it comes to the obligation of a just government to provide for all its citizens and secure a sustainable future for them, is in ascendancy right now in Washington. However, the people that are undermining the work of dedicated public servants are not as plain-spoken as Grover Norquist. They are obfuscating their aims with weaselly language. The American public, who is being so poorly served by these administrators, has little knowledge of what is going on or why it is a problem. The current plight of the USDA ERS illustrates this point.

Before I started working on food waste, I wasn’t aware of the ERS — the Economic Research Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ERS produces and maintains a lot of different datasets that are essential to my current research, including data on food availability and food loss in production, distribution, and consumption, data on expenditures and revenue of farms and agricultural operations in the United States, models and data to help determine who benefits from the money Americans spend on food, and many more. The economists and other researchers that work for ERS are loyally serving the interests of the American public, but one thing they haven’t been especially good at is telling Trump and his lackeys what they want to hear. The administration perceives them as having a liberal bias — essentially because they produced evaluations and projections that suggest that some proposed administration policies would be a bad idea for U.S. farmers and the U.S. economy in general. So they have had a target on their backs for some time now.

About a year ago, the current Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, announced that about 2/3 of the 300 ERS staff (along with NIFA, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture) would be relocated outside of Washington, D.C. A smaller number of ERS staff working on less controversial topics would be permitted to remain. Supposedly the relocation would bring them closer to their stakeholders. This was a nakedly political move: first because it clearly is aimed at diluting the influence of ERS, and second because it sends the message that the stakeholders that matter are big red-state agribusiness interests and their financial backers. After a reality-show-like bidding process in which cities and states competed to become the new home of ERS, the list is now narrowed down to three places: Kansas City, Research Triangle Park in NC, and Purdue University in Indiana. A final announcement is due any day now, prompting me to write this blog post.

The relocation of ERS is symptomatic of a larger trend of diminishing resources and support for publicly funded research in the United States. In order to solve deep-seated societal problems, it is crucial that researchers be allowed to produce data and results that are not funded by private interests, or whose priorities are not set by ideology of the currently prevailing administration. Research is increasingly seen as a luxury rather than a societal need. Research of the kind done by ERS, with fairly clear practical applications, is probably even better off in that respect than basic research. Even though relocating the ERS does not necessarily spell the end for critical economic research and data collection being done within USDA, it is certainly something that I and others view with unease.

The saga of ERS’s relocation is not yet over. A few weeks ago, ERS employees overwhelmingly voted to unionize, hoping to protect themselves amid the upheaval. And there is still the possibility that the move will be blocked at the eleventh hour, so Perdue is trying to railroad it through as fast as possible. Regardless of the outcome, the trend of drowning academic freedom and research produced in the public’s interest continues.

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