During my years as director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, I had the privilege of working with and supporting the efforts of phenomenally innovative and successful farmers and ranchers across America. Every farmer I interacted with knew their success was the result of reliance on sound science, which created the most productive agricultural production system in the world.
The scientific base of the U.S. departments of Agriculture, Interior and Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — particularly efforts related to food and agriculture, the environment, natural resources, climate change, water, alternative energy — has been decimated in the recent past.
The Washington Post’s analysis of employment data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management suggests that, during just the first two years of the current administration, over 1,600 scientists had left government service. Government agencies continue to be hard pressed to attract scientific talent; over 50% of vacancies at many agencies remain unfilled.
Every time I thought the destruction of the scientific base couldn’t get worse, it did. Case in point — the fake data and made-up rationale used to essentially gut and relocate my former agency, NIFA, and the Economic Research Service from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City. The agencies’ ability to convene and deploy the best knowledge, ideas and funding to, for example, enhance farm productivity and profitability, mitigate the impacts of droughts and extreme weather events, address nutritional needs and the obesity epidemic and diminish environmental degradation and other societal challenges have been hamstrung.
This destruction of the scientific base could potentially result in decades-long negative impacts on farmers, consumers and our nation’s international trade. We have read in the media that farmers and ranchers are finding it harder to access data and usable information because of USDA staff upheavals and shortages. Some farmers are worried about the viability of their agricultural operations in light of climate change and the extreme weather events, including the unseasonal torrential rains, droughts and wildfires in farm country.
During the past almost four years, we have seen the evisceration of the scientific base within the USDA that supports myriad efforts, such as genetics and breeding, pest management, food safety, forestry, soil conservation, economics and trade. It’ll take years to rebuild the robust science-based system that had been in place.
Needless to say, the above, combined with the disinvestment or elimination of programs in other parts of the U.S. scientific enterprise — in the basic sciences, health and biomedical sciences, public health, mental health and drug abuse, energy sciences, climate science, oceanic and atmospheric sciences, to name a few — indicates that nothing is safe in the misguided vision and actions we have seen during the past few years.
The current administration’s policies are an existential threat to our nation’s vaunted scientific and educational enterprise. Science is denigrated and disparaged. Political expediency pushes the science aside and instead, foists fiction. Instead of being empowered, scientists have been censored or forced to recant or change conclusions, contrary to the data and evidence.
The many heartbreaking conversations I have had with scientists and educators from across our nation invariably ends with the question: What can be done to stop this madness?
I exhort all Americans to come together to mount a coordinated effort to stop this madness and wanton destruction of our nation’s scientific and educational capacity and infrastructure.
Absent a change in direction, the outcomes of this administration’s efforts to destroy the scientific and educational enterprise will mean the death knell of American food and agricultural innovation and global competitiveness. Indeed, innovations from other countries, particularly China, have now surpassed those of the United States.
All of us have an opportunity to rebuild the trust in science and government and reverse the disinvestment in and destruction of the American scientific enterprise.
I urge the agricultural community to choose science over fiction.