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USDA employees fear funding cuts, potential job losses and data suppression under Trump

By Elizabeth Crawford

09-Mar-2017
Last updated on 09-Mar-2017 at 15:42 GMT2017-03-09T15:42:14Z

USDA employees fear funding cuts, potential job losses

A significant portion of employees at the US Department of Agricultural fear that policy changes implemented during the Trump Administration’s first 100 days threaten their jobs and project funding, and could suppress data, according to a small study from The Science Advisory Board.

According to an opinion poll of about 100 USDA employees, about 44% fear that will lose their jobs or be reassigned to a different position as the result of new policies from the Trump administration -- similar to the percentage of respondents who do not harbor such concerns.

Respondents also are split on the significance and long-term impact on USDA of a temporary suspension of new grants and contracts for all USDA funded projects under the new administration. According to the poll, 35% chalked the move up to “early stage transition pains that will get worked out in the coming months,” while the same percentage said the move was either “part of a long term strategy to defund the USDA” or “part of a long term strategy to defund agricultural industry.”

However, the scales tipped to reveal a slightly higher level of fear than comfort when the responses for participants who selected “other” are factored into the equation. Among these answers, one participant said the suspension was “very damaging to our country and our sciences,” another said “it makes me nervous to have been singled out in this way,” and several others said the move indicated that the new administration is not interested in science based policy and wants to censor research.

Fears around funding also become more prevalent as the poll digs deeper into respondents’ perception of the impact of potential budget cuts on USDA’s mission areas. Across the board most survey participants said they expect cuts to USDA’s six mission areas, with the Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Natural Resources and Environment and Research, Education & Economics areas most susceptible, according to the results.

In the face of this fear about potentially restricted funding in the future, a small portion – about 14% – of respondents said they are considering leaving the US to pursue their research, according to the poll. The vast majority – 82% – however, said they do not want to leave.

Many of these results, and the others in the poll, likely are colored by the majority of respondents working on agriculture research at the USDA – making them more sensitive to issues related to research funding and sharing information with the public, cautions researcher and manager at The Science Advisory Board Quentin Kreilmann.

Concerns about censorship and suppression

The future of funding is not the only concern on USDA employees’ minds. According to the survey, many also fear broader censorship under the new administration.

Based on a series of questions about ongoing suppression of USDA, Kreilmann concluded that agency employees “are experiencing a higher level of data suppression at the moment.”

He explains that he came to this conclusion even though slightly more – 32.6% – respondents said they did not feel that USDA data was being suppressed under the new administration compared to only 29.4% who said yes, because significantly more respondents – 56.5% – said in their experience there was not suppression of USDA data under previous administrations, compared to 29.3% who said there was suppression.

The concern about suppression likely stems from an email sent to USDA scientists in late January telling them that the Agricultural Research Service would not release any public-facing documents, including new releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds and social media content.

And while USDA rescinded that policy the following day, the damage likely already was done in terms of staff morale and a backlash against the president.

Low support for Perdue

USDA employees’ already high anxiety levels are further compounded by Trump’s decision to appoint Sunny Perdue as the secretary of the agency, the survey reveals.

It found only a quarter of respondents supported the appointment, while 36% did not. The remaining 38% said they had no opinion, which Kreilmann said, “can be interpreted as either not knowing or not being willing to answer.”

The higher disapproval rating could be related to the belief held by 54% of respondents that Perdue does not acknowledge a connection between industrial agriculture and climate change, the survey suggests.  

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