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Views and opinions:  USDA decision a win for science, and Kansas City


The Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence, Kan.

June 16, 2019

There is nothing special about the science of Washington, D.C., a city that long ago put hot air at the top of the periodic table of elements. People should remember that as they fret over a pending move from Washington to Kansas City of two key research divisions of the USDA.

Several scientific groups, lawmakers, and union bosses connected to the nation's capital were decrying the announcement that the USDA's Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture will move to the Kansas City area this fall.

 “This is a blatant attack on science and will especially hurt farmers, ranchers, and eaters at a particularly vulnerable time,” The Associated Press quoted Mike Lavender, a senior manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Yes, only good science can be done in Washington, D.C. That must be why there is such unanimity in Congress on global warming.

Kansas City economic development leaders, members of the Kansas and Missouri Congressional delegations, and, yes, the Trump administration deserve congratulations for working to move the USDA divisions to the heart of agriculture country.

You know, Trump was not wrong when he said that Washington, D.C., had become a swamp. He just is wrong about the science of cleaning it up. Invective is not the key ingredient in that formula – just as politics is not a part of the scientific process.

You can argue that politics has been one of the more destructive forces in scientific understanding in America. A cancer of political beliefs consuming proven facts is spreading across the country. But the tumor resides in Washington, D.C. Why should we believe such a city is somehow uniquely suited to be a center for objective research and scientific discovery?

Even if you don't buy that theory, there is an argument to be made that the consolidation of all our federal agencies in Washington increases the cost of big government. All the agencies compete for the same office space, the same workers, the same housing.

Washington has become one of the most expensive cities in the country. Maybe when the country was founded there was a great necessity for all of government's appendages to be next to each other. But technology makes it easier than ever to communicate.

Is it still efficient to locate so much of our government in such a high-cost area? Maybe part of cleaning up government involves spreading it out.

Yes, there will be some transition pains. Not all of USDA's current employees will want to make the move to Kansas City. Some good employees will be lost. That's a trade-off that happens with any relocation of a business or organization.

But researchers will benefit by being closer to agriculture. Synergies that are only imagined in Washington will become real in Kansas City.

Of course, people in the Kansas City area don't need much convincing that this move is a good one. The two divisions are expected to bring 550 jobs to Kansas City – exact location of the offices haven't been announced yet – and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri said many of the jobs would pay between $80,000-$100,000 a year.

The moves give Kansas City a legitimate chance to position itself as the leading agricultural city in America. A corridor that stretches from Manhattan, Kan., to Columbia, Mo., already is the leader in the animal sciences industry, with about 300 such firms located in the region.

Being the ag capital of America may not be as flashy as Silicon Valley's status as the tech capital, but agriculture is an extremely solid business. Eating is not a fad.

Communities across the region, including Lawrence, should work together to build upon this growing synergy. The University of Kansas' pharmacy school, for example, does a lot of research that also can be useful to the animal sciences field.

In fact, there are a tremendous number of high-tech and scientific opportunities with the agriculture industry. Figuring out how to feed a growing world population will take lots of science.

For all the Washington, D.C., worrywarts, rest assured we understand science here. If you don't believe us, we have proof. It shows up on your dinner plate every day.