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USDA relocation said to delay work

by BEN GUARINO THE WASHINGTON POST | October 3, 2019 at 2:09 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The relocation of two Agriculture Department agencies out of the District of Columbia has delayed the publication of dozens of research reports, including a study of the herbicide dicamba, quashed early-stage studies and halted the release of millions of dollars in funding, USDA employees say.

At the direction of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, two scientific agencies -- the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service -- moved to Kansas City this summer. Employees at the institute manage a $1.7 billion portfolio of science funding. The research service is a federal statistical agency whose experts study agricultural trade, farming and rural America.

Staff numbers at both agencies have plummeted since the relocation. At the food and agriculture institute, the employees who approve the grant paperwork and release funds are gone. The publishing staff at the research service did not accept the reassignment to Kansas City. The flow of research and grants from these agencies has slowed, employees said, piled up behind the logjam of empty desks.

An internal research-service memo obtained by The Washington Post and first reported by Politico describes dozens of delayed research-service reports. Two USDA employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the document, confirmed the existence of this list, which was circulated among research-service managers in mid-September.

According to a statement that the USDA's press office provided Tuesday, "[the Economic Research Service] 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."

The nearly 40 delayed reports include studies into veterans' diets, honeybee health and the opioid epidemic. Other reports address obesity, international markets and organic foods. These studies are completed but unpublished. Other research-service projects, in earlier stages, have been abandoned.

Laura Dodson, an economist and acting vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, the union chapter that represents research-service employees, had been working on what was to be a two-year-long report on dicamba. Soybean farmers use dicamba where weeds have developed resistance to another herbicide, glyphosate. But dicamba "has serious negative effects to neighboring farms who don't plant dicamba-resistant seeds," Dodson said. "It can essentially wipe out their whole crop."

The research service is "one of the few places, if not the only place right now, that has field-level data on dicamba drift issues," Dodson said. The scientists who would have been her co-authors left the research service. Dodson will be unable to complete the study alone.

At the food and agriculture institute, program directors and grant reviewers ensured that unspent funds that potentially would return to the Treasury Department at the end of the fiscal year were successfully obligated (meaning the money has been designated for specific projects). But no staff members remain at the agency who are able to approve the grant paperwork or authorize the funds' release.

As a result, tens of millions of dollars in approved grants are in limbo, set aside for recipients but unreleased. Funds for projects supported by the food and agriculture institute's competitive grant program, the $400 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, also have been delayed.

Michael O'Neill, an extension scientist at the University of Connecticut, said he was told last week to expect additional 60-day funding delays, stretching wait times up to four months. "They're great people and they're going to do the best they can," said O'Neill, a former food and agriculture institute program director. "But they have a budget of $1.7 billion -- that's a lot of money to move with a really, really reduced staff."

At the University of Connecticut, some institute funds pay the salaries of employees who study water quality, operate greenhouses and perform other agricultural jobs, O'Neill said. Large land-grant universities will be able to weather these delays, he predicted, but he was concerned that historically black universities and tribal colleges may be hit harder.

Only about 70 of 224 food and agriculture institute employees eligible to relocate accepted the reassignment, according to an internal estimate, said Thomas Bewick, an institute employee and American Federation of Government Employees chapter vice president. Every worker who declined the reassignment was to be fired on Friday, but the USDA extended some employees' contracts through March. According to the USDA statement, 38 employees at the research service and 22 employees at the food and agriculture institute have "delayed relocation orders."

A head count of staff members at the research service, conducted by the union, determined that 141 of 181 employees declined to move, Dodson said. Twenty-four people had their contracts extended. Sixteen accepted the reassignment.

Business on 10/03/2019

Print Headline: USDA relocation said to delay work


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