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Meet Economic Research Service Administrator Mary Bohman

1 May 2012 2,462 views No Comment
Amstat News invited Mary Bohman of the Economic Research Service to respond to the following questions so readers could learn more about her and the agency she leads. Look for other statistical agency head interviews in past and forthcoming issues.

Before becoming director of the Economic Research Service, Mary Bohman served in several positions at the agency, most recently heading ERS’s Resource and Rural Economics Division. She served a detail position at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and was on the agricultural sciences faculty at the University of British Columbia.

What about this position appealed to you?

The opportunity to lead a principal federal statistical agency that informs critical public policy and societal issues was the major draw. Today, perhaps more than ever, the issues involving food and agriculture are central concerns of the national and international community. The challenge of feeding a growing world population is an example. ERS analyses of agricultural productivity, the role of agricultural research in productivity growth, the factors driving global food prices, and global and domestic food security have already informed policy and provide the foundation for further work to address this challenge. Our research is poised to provide objective analysis to inform other national debates as well—around the next Farm Bill, childhood obesity, renewable energy, and adaptation to climate change, to name a few.

Fast Facts
Reports to Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Website: www.ers.usda.gov
FY12 budget: $77.7 million
Staff size: 385

Describe the top 2–3 priorities you have for the Economic Research Service.

A consistent priority is for the agency to remain relevant and independent. My vision on one side of this coin is for ERS to continue to addresses major policy issues under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) broad mission in the areas of food, agriculture, and rural economies. That means anticipating emerging issues and providing substantive research and analysis on these issues to inform policy decisions. On the other side, it’s to maintain the confidence of our customers and stakeholders in the objectivity of ERS’s work.

Another top priority is to capitalize on technological developments that enhance our analytical capabilities. That includes our ability to continue generating high-quality data and models such as those used in our long-term baseline projections for the agriculture sector.

We need to raise our visibility and reach out to new customers and partners, beyond those who already value our work. Partnerships with land grant and other universities, other government agencies, and private research institutions like the Ford Foundation have been mutually enriching. Anticipating the needs and contributions of other customers and partners—being customer- and stakeholder-driven—will be a priority in the next few years.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for ERS?

Communicating our data and findings effectively is as important as performing incisive analysis on relevant topics. The effort to communicate material clearly to an informed, but nontechnical, audience is a consistent challenge. This year, we unveil a redesigned website that organizes and displays material for easier access to information and data.

Our communications strategy includes investment of time and resources to improve data visualization and clarity and to enhance GIS-based tools such as our Food Desert Locator and the Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America. Our new daily Charts of Note series demonstrates the broad range of data ERS offers. Each chart is accompanied by text to provide context—often of a policy nature. The media have taken notice, with several news articles generated by individual charts.

How can the statistical community help you?

ERS has long recognized the importance of close links with the statistical community. These mutually beneficial contacts can lead to highly relevant policy research.

ERS and other USDA agencies, for example, collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when EPA was developing regulations on animal waste management under the Clean Water Act. The USDA team provided analysis of alternative policy options. Data from ERS on livestock operators’ production costs was a useful tool in evaluating cost-effective options for animal waste management. ERS’s own research on market mechanisms of conservation used data from EPA’s National Section 303(d) List of Impaired Waters.

ERS draws on data from USDA and other federal agencies, as well as universities and private-sector sources to use in our analytical work, our forecasts, and in data products we package for ERS customers. The Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) are among the agencies whose data we use. ERS’s Food Environment Atlas, which compiles geospatial data on communities’ food options and health outcomes, is an example of one product incorporating data from a number of sources—in this case, to explore the interaction of multiple factors in food choices and diet quality.

Prior to your tenure, what do you see as the biggest recent accomplishments of the agency?

The Economic Research Service has sustained its independence and relevance, whether providing briefings to policymakers or preparing in-depth reports. And the agency has been ahead of the curve in anticipating and informing front-burner issues.

Our annual report on U.S. household food security is used by federal and state policymakers in shaping laws and programs regarding food assistance, other public assistance, and poverty. ERS, as part of the U.S. Food Security Measurement Project—a collaboration among federal agencies, university researchers, and private organizations—played a key role in developing the survey measure, which has become a national and international standard. For more than 10 years, ERS has overseen the survey—conducted by the Census Bureau—and is responsible for analyzing and publishing the results and ensuring continued reliability of the survey methodology. Each year’s report is widely cited by stakeholders and the media.

I’m also particularly proud of ongoing technological enhancements in our Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS). ARMS is a joint venture with NASS and the primary source of information about the financial condition, production practices, resource use, and economic well-being of America’s farms and farm households. Information from ARMS is used extensively by policymakers and researchers. ERS and NASS have developed dynamic, easy to use web-based data delivery tools to expand access by customers. The two agencies are currently providing remote access to authorized users to sensitive ARMS microdata in a confidential, protected environment in collaboration with the National Opinion Research Center.

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