If Washington doesn’t want USDA’s independent research arm, 136 other places say they do

The agency has announced a list of possible new locations for its crucial, bipartisan research services. Will Washington’s loss be someone else’s gain?

In August, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a plan to move two crucial bi-partisan—and independent—research-related agencies out of Washington, D.C., and restructure them as smaller subsidiaries of the Office of the Chief Economist.

It was an announcement that bewildered many USDA observers—and even the agencies’ approximately 690 employees, some of whom were made aware of the news as we were reporting it.

At the time, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the department planned to move the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which is responsible for funding agriculture research at land-grant universities, and the Economic Research Service (ERS), which publishes non-partisan research reports on trends in food and agriculture, out of the nation’s capital to save money on payroll and rent, move researchers closer to the agricultural community, and improve ERS’s poor job retention rate.

USDA received 136 expressions of interest from stakeholders in 35 states to host the agencies, should they move out of Washington next year as planned.

The news was met with a swift backlash. As we reported, many inside and outside ERS feared the plan was a politically motivated attempt to lessen the agency’s impact on Capitol Hill and suppress research that could contradict any of the Trump Administration’s publicly stated positions. A move, they worried, would result in a wave of buyouts and early retirements, as veteran economists and statisticians who are place-bound in Washington would be less likely to move out of residences in the city or its surrounding areas. There was also concern about whether the agencies would still be able to advise Congress (ERS researchers regularly meet with staffers and legislative aides in person).

Additionally, the American Statistical Association, among other academic and statistical bodies, said the Agriculture Department had overstated staff attrition by including in its calculations summer interns—a position with a 100 percent turnover rate.

But it appears Washington’s loss could now be someone else’s gain. During a two-month period, between August 15 and October 15, the department received 136 expressions of interest from stakeholders in 35 states to host the agencies, should they move out of Washington next year as planned.

Who’s interested? The list reveals a mix of public and private groups, including land-grant universities, chambers of commerce, economic development coalitions, and commercial real estate developers like Newmark Knight Frank and Cushman & Wakefield.

Where are they located? A number of mid-sized cities, many of which boast land-grant universities, including Birmingham, Alabama; Tempe, Arizona; Tucson, Arizona; Sacramento, California; Denver, Colorado; Des Moines, Iowa; Wichita, Kansas; the Kansas City region; Minneapolis, Minnesota; St. Louis, Missouri; the North Carolina Research Triangle; Fargo, North Dakota; Omaha, Nebraska; Akron, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Dallas, Texas.

The roster of interested parties includes around 20 land-grant universities, which may anger critics of the plan, such as the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. In a September sign-on letter, the association wrote that universities who apply to host the agencies may avoid criticizing the moves, for fear of losing the bids.

“Many [land-grant university] administrators will feel obligated to submit EOIs [expressions of interest] or support state EOIs. At the same time, as administrators of scientific research, they also question the impact relocation of NIFA may have on its future role and strength,” the letter read. “The Department has placed university administrators in the very difficult position of risking the elimination of their state as a potential future site should they choose to publicly express concerns about moving NIFA away from the [capital region].”

For its part, USDA in a press release issued Monday said “under the plan, no ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated. Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most.” The agency said employees will be offered relocation assistance and will retain their base pay. For those who are interested, it said, the department is seeking approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for voluntary early retirement and voluntary separation payments.

The full list of interested parties is available here.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.