The National Institute of Food and Agriculture supports research at tribal colleges and other land grant universities. The Trump administration is relocating it to Kansas City. Some wonder if the agency will survive the move.
By Paul Boyer
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), an agency within the USDA that supports research and extension programs at land grant universities, including 34 tribally controlled colleges, is being told that it must move its offices from Washington, DC to Kansas City by September 30, 2019.
Agriculture department officials argue the move will save money and also bring the agency closer to the agricultural heartland.
Administrators and researchers within land grant universities contend, however, that the move will disrupt grantmaking and diminish research. Because most NIFA employees are not relocating, those familiar with the move say it will result in a loss of expertise and a much smaller agency.
Fully staffed, NIFA has between 300 and 400 employees. It is now down to slightly more than 200 employees and many more departures are expected. The Washington Post reported that the agency currently has 224 employees and that, as of mid July, 151 had declined to relocate.
“This is the brain drain we all feared,” according to a University of Florida administrator quoted in the Post.
Tribally controlled colleges, which were designated by Congress as land grant institutions in 1994, are eligible for funding under a variety of NIFA-administered programs, including the Tribal College Research Grants Program, which supports “research projects of tribal, state, or national importance,” according to the NIFA website.
NIFA also funds tribal agriculture extension programs, and manages endowment and equity appropriations for tribal colleges, according to John Phillips, executive director of the First Americans Land Grant Consortium (FALCON), a professional association of tribal college educators, researchers, and students who work on land grant programs. All told, NIFA provides between $18 and $20 million to the tribal colleges annually, he said.
While this funding is a small part of NIFA’s total $1.7 billion portfolio, the agency is valued by tribal colleges as a reliable and knowledgeable partner. Grants support the development of community-focused agriculture programs and strengthen research capacity. “NIFA has been very good in its role of administering merit based, panel reviewed grants,” Phillips said.
Officials within NIFA and the USDA are attempting to reassure universities that the agency’s work will continue. “NIFA is telling us that everything will be fine,” Phillips said, “that the trains will run on time.”
When asked to comment on the move and the impact on tribal colleges, NIFA forwarded testimony by Scott Hutchins, who was appointed by President Trump to serve as U.S. undersecretary of research, education, and economics for the USDA. Speaking before the Senate Agriculture Committee, he said there will be “continuity of mission,” and stated that the department had a “very aggressive hiring plan for vacancies.”
Other observers foresee a more difficult transition. While Washington-based staff are expected sell homes and move families within the coming weeks, the agency has not yet leased office space in Kansas City, leaving employees wondering if they should relocate to Kansas or Missouri. College administrators and faculty also worry about delays in the review and funding of proposals. Without adequate staff, some grants might not be funded, according to several sources.
Beyond this short term disruption, some are concerned that the agency will not regain its former level of staffing. Privately, they propose that permanent diminishment of the agency might be the Trump administration’s goal, noting that NIFA and the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), which is also facing reorganization and a mandated move, support research on climate change, trade war tariffs, and other issues that produce findings contrary to Trump administration policies.
Opponents of the move also argue that relocation will isolate NIFA and limit its ability to work with other science and research-focused agencies in the federal government, such as the National Science Foundation.
Time will tell if these fears are valid, but it’s clear that research is under attack.
NIFA and ERS “are two small, research-oriented agencies, and research is not at the top of the agenda for this administration,” said Catherine Woteki, who served as undersecretary of research, education, and economics for the USDA during the Obama administration. Quoted in a recent issue of Science, she said that current USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue “doesn’t have to worry about pushback from any of the food and agricultural organizations that have the president’s ear.”
Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report