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Last night, Rachel Maddow did her opening piece on the history of scientific excellence and global leadership by the USDA its decimation at the hands of the Trump administration and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue – and in particular the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the principal in-house research agency of the USDA. She highlighted this Politico story:
Agriculture Department buries studies showing dangers of climate change The Trump administration has stopped promoting government-funded research into how higher temperatures can damage crops and pose health risks. By Helena Bottemiller Evich. 06/23/2019.
The Trump administration has refused to publicize dozens of government-funded studies that carry warnings about the effects of climate change, defying a longstanding practice of touting such findings by the Agriculture Department’s acclaimed in-house scientists.
Beyond the willful obfuscation and burying of important research findings about climate change, Maddow also highlighted a Washington Post article published yesterday that noted that USDA scientists were also recently given a choice: move to Kansas City by July 15 or be fired – somehow it sounds even worse when using the administration’s term: “be separated by adverse action procedures.” This forced move could cause a massive brain drain and decimate the scientific staff at the ARS, the Economic Research Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Maddow stated that perhaps 90% of scientists would leave the USDA!).
Talk about information loss!
Here’s another story of a digitization effort that’s not been made publicly available. USDA’s National Agricultural Library hosts the Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains 7,584 historical — and beautiful! — agricultural watercolor paintings of different varieties of fruits and nuts, commissioned between 1886 and 1942. Through a grant from an environmental non-profit called The Ceres Trust, USDA has digitized the paintings, but are only giving access to low-quality previews of them. The public can request up to three high-quality scans free of charge, but must pay $10 per file beyond that. USDA says that a “portion of the proceeds supports the conservation treatment of fragile materials.”
Conservation treatment is expensive and time consuming, but necessary. But it’s clear from the FOIA request submitted by Parker Higgins (who posted the images and story) of USDA that the revenues USDA is collecting for access to high-resolution images is neither recouping the cost of digitization nor paying for conservation treatments. So I call on USDA to 1) release these 7,584 paintings to the public domain where they should be; and 2) request adequate budget from Congress to properly conserve these important historical paintings.
The USDA’s National Agricultural Library hosts the Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains images of different varieties of fruits and nuts, commissioned between 1886 and 1942.
They’re remarkable as art, and also have serious scientific importance: they are some of the only documentation, for example, of thousands of apple types that no longer exist. The USDA has called the Pomological Watercolor Collection “Perhaps the most attractive as well as historically important of NAL’s treasures,” and it was cited just this week in a Washington State University article about apple preservation efforts.
The public should have access to these images, and that access should be automatic and unrestricted. Fortunately, that is technically possible: the USDA, through a grant from an environmental non-profit called The Ceres Trust, went though a multi-year digitization effort and now has high-quality scans of every image. However, members of the public can currently only view low-resolution versions online, can only request up to three high-quality scans free of charge, and must pay $10 per file beyond that.
And though the order page touts the fact that a portion of proceeds will go to conservation efforts, the numbers just don’t add up. I suspected that conservation costs are orders of magnitude higher than reproduction revenues, so I asked. Through a FOIA request to the USDA, I obtained the digitization project report, as well as a breakdown of the last three and a half years of revenues that the collection has generated.
Digitizing the images cost $288,442. Since the collection went online in 2011, members of the public have ordered just 81 images, for a total of $565. That relatively tiny amount simply cannot justify the cost to the public of keeping these images behind a paywall.
[UPDATE #1: Christian James tweeted that besides the National Agricultural Library, we should also credit USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and their National Nutrient Database. So big thanks to USDA-ARS!]
Many Americans don’t think they use government information, but they’re wrong. Many people think that the private sector meets their information needs just fine and government shouldn’t be “wasting resources” by collecting and sharing information. They’re wrong too.
But it’s not entirely their fault. For example, in the last few months Bing and Google both started to provide an impressive amount of nutritional information in response to searches on food names. I’m a fan of kale chips, so I typed “kale” into Google and got this:
The private sector at work, right? Who needs the government to produce nutritional information when we can just Google or Bing it? Right?
Um. No. If you look at the very bottom of the image in both Google and Bing, you’ll find some very important fine print. Here it is from Google:
Notice the tiny “Sources include USDA”? If you think to mouse down to the word “USDA” and click it, you’ll be whisked away to the entry for kale in the US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, produced by the National Agricultural Library (NAL).
Cut the NAL too much and they’ll have to drop the National Nutrient Database. Then bye-bye to your real time, up to date nutritional data in your search engines results.
The invisible hand of government information shows up in a lot of places if you know to look for it. In the pre internet days you could have not produced an almanac without one. Today, any private website that has any sort of detailed demographic information for states, cities and neighborhoods is almost certainly pulling from the beleaguered Census Bureau. Those private sector sites telling you about the hottest jobs in demand over the next ten years? Likely pulling from the Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And so it goes. If people say, “I don’t use government information, I use Google” show them how they’re actually soaking in government information. Then ask them to write Congress to keep their hands off their favorite information sources.