Biden USDA Must Do More to Rebuild a Diverse Science Workforce

January 20, 2022 | 4:06 pm
Ken Hammond/Flickr.
Charlotte Kirk Baer
Former contributor

Last fall, a report from the Government Accountability Office found that the relocation of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) headquarters from Washington, DC to Colorado in 2020 undercut diversity and resulted in a significant loss of Black staff. But it was not the only federal agency to experience this.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also saw severe brain drain, including sharp drops in numbers of Black employees, after the abrupt relocation of two agencies to Kansas City, Missouri, in 2019. Staff, of which I was one, were given an ultimatum: Relocate or quit. Based on the data, Black employees were hurt the worst.  

USDA science and staff still have a long way to go

The result of the relocation was the loss of thousands of dedicated staff, and especially Black staff, curbing our nation’s ability to address crises like climate change and food insecurity that severely impact communities of color. Scientific capacity at the USDA is still not what it needs to be to meet the magnitude of these societal challenges.

The department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and its Economic Research Service (ERS) lost more than 75 percent of staff, as employees had just 90 days to decide whether to relocate. Almost devoid of its scientific and administrative expertise, NIFA struggled to effectively support research vital to farmers, educators, policymakers, and consumers. At ERS, reports fell by more than 30 percent as a skeleton staff had to delay or cancel reports on issues ranging from commodity price forecasts and dairy industry consolidation to food security among veterans.

The relocation hurt many employees. But its outcomes were also deeply inequitable. According to the agency’s data, in 2018 39 percent of NIFA’s workforce was Black. In 2020, one year after NIFA arrived in Kansas City, that figure had plummeted to 15 percent where, according to available data, it remains today. Similarly, ERS lost over half of the agency’s Black employees between 2019 and 2020.

Racial equity in agriculture begins with USDA

A new Union of Concerned Scientists assessment, One Year of Science Under Biden, found that while the administration has worked to build up the federal scientific workforce in its first year, progress is mixed across agencies. And sharp losses of Black staff such as those documented at ERS, NIFA, and BLM should raise alarms for the administration, which has committed to advancing racial equity.

Reducing discrimination and barriers in agriculture must include ensuring USDA’s workforce represents the diverse communities it serves. Rapidly hiring new staff isn’t enough. Agencies need to understand how relocation changed staff makeup, expertise, and experience and develop a strategy for building back a strong and diverse workforce.

In other words, rebuilding ERS and NIFA must be done thoughtfully, with a focus on diversity, experience, and expertise—and requires more than standard human resource efforts. A strategic, focused approach to rebuilding will better equip the USDA to address the urgent farming, health, and climate challenges the nation faces today. It will ensure that we are planning for tomorrow’s challenges, reshaping the food system so it serves us all. 

There are a few things USDA leadership can do right away:

  • Assess and address the impact of the relocation on science and diversity at ERS and NIFA;
  • Launch strategic planning with internal and external input focused on building a diverse and experienced scientific workforce;
  • Innovate with mixed hiring approaches including new hires for fresh perspective, rehires to regain talent, inter-agency personnel agreements to promote information exchange, fellowships to encourage the next generation of public servants, rotating staff from other organizations to continually infuse new expertise;
  • Ensure career opportunities are widely accessible, particularly to those who have historically been underrepresented in federal scientific roles.

President Biden’s nomination of Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young to be the USDA’s under secretary for research, education, and economics—awaiting a confirmation vote by the full Senate—is a giant leap in the right direction. Dr. Jacobs-Young, a scientist, longtime civil servant, and the first Black woman to lead science at USDA, can revitalize and reshape the department’s scientific workforce and research to ensure that strong science addresses our society’s priorities and informs our public policies and regulations.   

As a former USDA employee and staunch supporter of its mission, I want to see the agency rebuild, improve, and succeed. But if rebuilding results in a workforce that is less diverse than before and fails to reflect the public that the USDA serves, what are we saving?