Gutting of two USDA research agencies is warning to all federal agencies, ex-employees say

“Overall the staff of these agencies is down and continues to go down. I think you’re going to see a brain drain continue until the end of this administration," one former official said.
Image: The federal government has been losing scientists at an alarming rate, as experts in EPA, USDA and the Department of Interior have left their agencies under duress from the Trump administration.
The federal government has been losing scientists at an alarming rate, as experts in EPA, USDA and the Department of Interior have left their agencies under duress from the Trump administration.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images; AP

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By Phil McCausland

The Trump administration announced in June that it would move two Department of Agriculture research agencies — the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture — and their 547 employees from Washington, D.C., to a rented office in Kansas City, Missouri, within three months.

That sudden announcement and the aggressive timeline that accompanied it led hundreds of employees to resign or retire early, leaving the two critical institutions gutted.

Now more than a dozen scientists, researchers, economists and experts who are currently or were formerly employed by multiple federal agencies, including the ERS and the NIFA, told NBC News the effective dismantling of these two agencies is only the latest hit, but it is the most illustrative of the administration’s intentions: to remove or neuter evidence-based research.

As of now, only 16 from the ERS and 45 from the NIFA have made the move to Kansas City — a very small percentage of the total workforce.

That has left the ERS, which publishes data and research about American agriculture, and the NIFA, an agency that manages $1.7 billion of science funding, effectively crippled. And despite the USDA’s insistence that they are hiring at a rapid clip, many remain skeptical that the two agencies will ever recover.

The pace of the move, employees said, was frantic, leaving many to decide by the last Friday in September whether they would move their families and lives west or be fired the following Monday.

Numerous current and former employees across multiple agencies, from the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management, pointed to a comment acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney made in August that, they said, reveals the motivation for the moves.

Mulvaney said relocating the two USDA offices out of Washington was an example of the administration circumventing the roadblocks to firing federal employees and “draining the swamp.”

“By simply saying to people, ‘You know what? We’re going to take you outside the bubble, outside the Beltway, outside this liberal haven of Washington, D.C., and move you out into the real world into the real part of the country, they quit,” Mulvaney said at a South Carolina Republican Party dinner, noting the difficulty he had in firing federal employees. “What a wonderful way to kind of streamline government and do what we haven’t been able to do for a long time.”

The fear that Mulvaney’s comments are the driving factor behind these decisions was reiterated by employees who work for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Office of Personnel Management, agencies that are in danger of being moved or merged with another agency. Those employees asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution.

'I can’t do it alone'

An internal USDA memo obtained by NBC News and first reported by Politico details that the large number of departures from the ERS will lead to the delay or even the discontinuation of 56 reports or studies.

The gutting of the agencies is likely to have a detrimental impact on rural and farming communities that depend on the information and funding they provide, advocates said.

Laura Dodson, an agriculture economist and the acting vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, which represents the ERS workers, explained that it has caused a lot of work in the pipeline to come to a halt, including a two-year study she worked on examining the effects of the herbicide dicamba, which is increasingly popular in agriculture.

“Everyone on that team quit except for me, and I can’t do it alone because I’m not the expert,” she said.

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That’s a sentiment also shared by Tom Bewick, a national program leader at the NIFA who is one of the few employees making the move to Kansas City.

He said that there is a huge amount of institutional knowledge needed to ensure the money the agency oversees is handed out on time and to qualified research.

“With all those people leaving, it’s going to be very difficult,” said Bewick, whose wife will remain in Virginia for work while he lives in Kansas City.

The studies that will be stalled, according to the memo, include examinations of the impact of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — on rural communities, an update on farm incomes, the impact of the consolidation of dairy farming, the drivers of the opioid epidemic, a dozen reports on trade policy impacts on U.S. agriculture, veterans’ diets, obesity and much more.

The USDA maintains that there will be limited impact on its research, however.

“ERS has taken important action to ensure mission continuity and delivery of mission critical work throughout the transition, and as a result, the agency is on track to complete its mandated and calendared projects,” a USDA spokesperson said, adding that the NIFA has decided on all its awards for the current financial year, which are currently under final review.

Any research delays and any potential holdup in the $1.7 billion portfolio that the NIFA oversees could be detrimental to rural communities, said Alicia Harvie, the director of advocacy and farmers services at Farm Aid, especially with its potential impact on programs like the Farmer and Ranchers Stress Assistance Network.

As farmers in the country face an economic crisis, stress has become a worrying component of daily life in agriculture, said Harvie, who noted that the Farm Aid hotline receives calls from farmers expressing suicidal ideation almost weekly.

“This affects rural communities, this affects how food and agriculture systems are going to respond when research dollars are delayed,” Harvie said. “Farmers and ranchers are increasingly dependent on ERS and other research wings of the government to tell them about weather, for example, especially in this past year when every area of the Mississippi River watershed and Missouri River watershed experienced record floods that left farmers unable to plant.”

The USDA, however, maintained that this was not a move designed to “drain the swamp,” as Mulvaney said, and denied that it would lead to less research or its studies would suffer as a result.

A USDA spokesperson instead pointed to the agency’s cost-benefit analysis released in June, which stated the move would save the agency $300 million over 15 years and allow it to reinvest those funds to “allow more funding for research of critical needs like rural prosperity and agricultural competitiveness, and for programs and employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets.”

But a review of the USDA’s findings by three economists from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association disputes that analysis and alleges the USDA leadership did not follow federal guidelines in creating it. The economists found that the move would, in fact, cost taxpayers between $83 million and $182 million because the USDA analysis overstated the cost of keeping the agencies in Washington, D.C., and did not account for the loss of research and staffers.

“It’s not convincing,” a former ERS employee said, asking not to be identified out of fear of retribution. “It has been proven time and again their reasoning is false. They are throwing this up as a façade to hide their true intention to drive people from the federal government.”

'A sham from the start'

Employees who spoke to NBC News said the lack of planning seemed endemic to the entire move and employees affected.

“To implement the relocation plan the way they did, with the timing they did, without even the clear legal authority to do so speaks to the fact that this was done intentionally to be as rapid a move as possible and destroy as much of the agency as possible,” said a former ERS economist who elected to retire rather than move.

This same employee was recently asked by the USDA to come out of retirement part-time as a stopgap measure because of workflow issues that have come up.

The administration at one point offered a $25,000 buyout to employees who were close to retirement, one current and one former employee explained to NBC News separately. Approximately 140 people were eligible, but so many attempted to take the buyout that the Trump administration had to decrease the award, known as a Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment or VSIP, to $10,000.

“Ostensibly, they gave a buyout to everyone who applied for one and made it less than half the value that they promised,” said one ERS employee who retired instead of moving. “The ugliness of it: The buyout was a sham from the start.”

A USDA spokesperson noted that it is not required to offer the payments at all, and there is no required amount, adding that they decided to pay every employee who applied rather than "on a first-come first-serve basis."

Will the brain drain continue?

Numerous employees told NBC News that the shrinking staff levels are expected to continue, and that droves of employees with expertise in research and science will continue to leave federal service in the coming year.

These losses of expertise at the ERS and the NIFA are only a fraction of the larger problem that has already affected the USDA, the EPA and BLM, some said.

“Overall, the staff of these agencies is down and continues to go down. I think you’re going to see a brain drain continue until the end of this administration,” said Chris Zarba, who served as the staff director of the Scientific Advisory Board at the EPA until 2018.

Under eight years of the Obama administration the EPA averaged slightly more than 16,200 employees per year, while the Bush administration carried more than 17,400, according to the agency’s own records. That number has reduced to fewer than 14,600 under three years of the Trump administration.

Many expressed concern that the falling numbers and stressful work environment would affect recruiting efforts in the future, as well as cause the federal government to lose employees who know how many of these agencies function at a foundational level.

But until something changes, a number of people in federal service are continuing to search for other jobs, said Besty Southerland, who served as the director of Science and Technology in the EPA’s Office of Water for 30 years before she retired in 2017.

“Morale is just terrible now,” Southerland said. “Everyone working in there now is just heartbroken because they read the newspapers like we do. They know they have no chance of changing those guys’ minds. Everybody I’m talking to just hopes that they can turn this thing around if they get the chance in 2021.”