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Four takeaways: USDA plans to move 500+ scientists to the KC Metro

June 20, 2019
By: Jonathan Dworin

Last week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced plans to relocate nearly 550 USDA scientist positions from the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City metropolitan area. Originally announced in August 2018, the planned relocation of scientists within the USDA Economic Research Service, a statistical agency, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, has gained widespread attention. The scientists involved are arguing that the move is political: that their research is so important to setting policy that they should be in the Beltway. On the other hand, proponents of the decision argue that the move will cut costs and bring the scientists closer to stakeholders in the nation’s agricultural heartland. Here are four takeaways about the proposed move.

Takeaway One: This marks another step in the politicization of federal science.

Americans are increasingly polarized when it comes to public trust in science, according to an analysis by the blog FiveThirtyEight, and politics play a major role.

The reaction from USDA scientists subject to the move have been overwhelmingly negative, according to the Washington Post. For example, in a speech announcing the planned relocation, scientists from labor unions formed by ERS and NIFA protested, turning their backs to Perdue. Both the ERS and the NIFA have unionized within the past month with the hopes of reversing the decision.

Criticism has also come from former USDA chief scientists and other agricultural leaders, who have argued the move would be messy, expensive, and set the agency back nearly a decade. There are also concerns that it could negatively impact the research offices ability to collaborate with major partners and other federal funding agencies in the D.C. region.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one group that has been overwhelmingly supportive of the decision is the Kansas City region’s federal legislators. A joint statement praising the move was released by the four Republican U.S. senators in Missouri and Kansas. Notably, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts is the chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee. There was also bipartisan support from representatives in the region, such as Missouri Republican Vicky Hartzler and Kansas Democrat Sharice Davids.

Takeaway Two: There are some good reasons to relocate scientists outside of D.C.

In a 2017 article for CityLab, Richard Florida writes that moving some federal agencies out of the Beltway is an idea that has gained support from pundits on both the right and the left. On the right, The New York Times’ Ross Douthat suggests relocating federal agencies as a way to overcome cultural and political divides, and to break up an increasingly concentrated (and liberal) capitol region. Meanwhile, Vox’s Matt Yglesias, on the left, views the relocation of federal agencies as a way to spur economic development in struggling regions. Elements of both of these arguments have been inserted into the decision to move the ERS and NIFA offices.

A cost-benefit analysis conducted by the accounting firm Ernst & Young (EY) lays out some of the advantages to the Kansas City region. For example, the region’s proximity to land grant universities could assist the agency in attracting and retaining qualified scientific and administrative staff with an agricultural interest. Kansas City is also at the heart of the KC Animal Health Corridor, “one of the largest concentrations of industry assets in the world.”

Additionally, the analysis suggests the move places USDA resources closer to key stakeholders. ERS and NIFA will have close access to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the branch primarily responsible for the region, and would be close to a cluster of 300 animal health companies employing 20,000 people.

Finally, the move would offer significant savings on employment costs and rent. Relocating the positions would save the USDA $194 million, more than 11 percent, in salaries and rent over 15 years, according to the analysis. “Federal salaries are tied to office location and formulas on cost of living. Some ERS employees said their salaries would drop 12% if they left Washington,” according to a recent article in Successful Farming.

As innovation assets are increasingly concentrated on the coasts, public policy could play a role in distributing opportunity in areas across the country. As SSTI noted last year, “simply adding new [federal R&D] funds to the totals that are accumulated by the bottom half of states will not address the inequitable distribution of resources. Instead, there may be a need for a broader, more structural change in how federal funds for R&D are allocated.” Despite the politics inherent in a decision such as this, it is worth noting that there are advantages.

Takeaway Three: This presents a possible new front for economic development

Florida’s story on moving federal agencies also notes that, “shifting large pieces of the federal government away from D.C. would benefit smaller, less costly, more economically distressed cities and metros across the country, generating employment and investment in these places, and potentially even help form new industrial clusters.” Furthermore, he writes that such a move would benefit Washington, D.C., by allowing the area to continue to diversify away from federal employment and by relieving pressure on the region’s commercial and residential real estate markets.

The relocation of federal agencies — especially those with considerable numbers of scientists — presents a unique economic development opportunity. Last year’s competition for the US Army’s Future Command, which ultimately picked Austin, Texas, is one example. Going further back, the decision to relocate offices for the FBI and the Forest Service to Clarksville, West Virginia, set the stage for future events like this.

In this particular instance, it is worth noting that locations on both the Missouri and Kansas sides of the region are still in play for these positions. This is important because the two states have made progress in the past year to stop their “border battle,” a zero-sum game of economic development that has plagued the region, with little actual job growth for either state.

From the RFP process, to the political posturing, to the main players involved (economic development agencies, clusters, politicians), this all bears an extremely close resemblance to conventional site selection. As the Trump Administration begins to contemplate moving additional agency workers outside of the Beltway, this presents a possibly new front for economic development. 

Takeaway Four: Despite the announcement, the deal is not over

Congressional Democrats are working to ensure that the move does not go according to plan. In December, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree submitted a bill that would aim to keep the scientists in the D.C. region. Maryland Sen. Christopher Van Hollen has submitted a similar bill to the Senate. In comments made to the Washington Post, Van Hollen indicated he would “continue to fight this tooth and nail” to ensure the moves do not take place, and that he plans to place an amendment to the NDAA recently released by the Senate Armed Services Committee.  In comments made to Politico, Rep. Pingree noted that that a USDA Inspector General investigation "examining the viability of this relocation is not complete."

Stay tuned to the Digest for additional information as the developments unfold.