The Manhattan Mercury, Aug. 5

NBAF should learn from USDA move to Kansas City

Manhattan should take heed of what happened recently when the USDA decided to relocate some of its offices to the Kansas City region.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture decided announced recently that it would move its Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City — to the delight of leaders in Kansas and Missouri, and to the horror of some employees, who didn't want to leave the nation's capital.

Part of the problem in this situation was that the move was pretty sudden, leaving workers without much time to decide whether to go. But it's important that the USDA not lose skilled scientists, who may be harder to attract in the Midwest. If the department can't replace those people, it would lose clout and diminish its effectiveness.

The parallel, of course, is that USDA is building the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility at the north end of the K-State campus. It's replacing the aging Plum Island lab in New York.

When NBAF takes over Plum Island's work, some of its employees may decide to come here, as officials seem to have hoped. But the reality is that most probably won't. In fact, when The Mercury visited Plum Island in 2015, officials there laughed at the prospect.

People become deeply rooted in their communities, and we have to be realistic about the fact that it's often hard to convince people who live in big East Coast cities to come to Kansas, which is different in so many ways. And especially for people later in their careers, a move might not be an option.

That said, the NBAF hiring situation is certainly not the same as the USDA's Kansas City move. It's been in the works for years now, and the Department of Agriculture, as well as the Department of Homeland Security before it, have developed strategies to ensure NBAF will be properly staffed.

Chief among these are the training and education programs they have implemented in partnership with K-State. If you can't attract scientists, make them yourself, right?

We also believe that the Kansas City and Manhattan areas are gaining a reputation for animal health and biodefense. We hope that will continue to grow and make this region a natural fit for people interested in those fields.

NBAF officials have said that they expect to have 80 percent of its workforce in place by December 2020. We hope they'll achieve that goal and continue to meet the staffing needs of this very important national lab.

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