Trump’s pick for a top USDA sci­ence job isn’t a trained sci­en­tist

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JULIET EILPERIN AND CHELSEA HAR­VEY eilper­inj@wash­ Chris Mooney con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is plan­ning to nom­i­nate Sam Clo­vis — the Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment’s se­nior White House ad­viser — as head of the USDA’s Re­search, Ed­u­ca­tion and Eco­nomics divi­sion, ac­cord­ing to in­di­vid­u­als briefed on the de­ci­sion. The move would mark a break with both past Republican and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions, which have re­served the high-level po­si­tion for sci­en­tists with ex­per­tise in agri­cul­tural re­search.

Clo­vis — a for­mer eco­nomics pro­fes­sor and talk ra­dio host in Iowa who served as one of the Trump cam­paign’s first pol­icy ad­vis­ers — has a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and gov­ern­ment, a mas­ter’s in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion and a doc­toral de­gree in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion, ac­cord­ing to his LinkedIn page. In other pub­lic bi­ogra­phies he has em­pha­sized his 25-year stint in the Air Force and ex­per­tise in na­tional se­cu­rity and for­eign pol­icy.

As Agri­cul­ture’s White House se­nior ad­viser, Clo­vis has played a key role in the depart­ment since Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice. Clo­vis helped run the USDA dur­ing the time be­fore Sec­re­tary Sonny Per­due took of­fice, and he signed off on di­rec­tives such as one em­ploy­ees re­ceived on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day that in­structed them to clear any pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tions in ad­vance with the sec­re­tary’s of­fice.

The job for which Clo­vis is now un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, Agri­cul­ture’s un­der­sec­re­tary of re­search, ed­u­ca­tion and eco­nomics, ranks as a top-level sci­ence po­si­tion that over­sees the depart­ment’s ex­ten­sive sci­en­tific mis­sion. The depart­ment’s chief sci­en­tist also over­sees Agri­cul­ture’s eco­nomic bu­reaus, in­clud­ing the Nat­u­ral Agri­cul­tural Sta­tis­tics Ser­vice and the Eco­nomic Re­search Ser­vice. Clo­vis’s ex­per­tise ap­pears most closely re­lated to these bu­reaus.

The pos­si­ble ap­point­ment of Clo­vis was first sug­gested Fri­day by the agri­cul­tural press.

An Agri­cul­ture spokesman could not be im­me­di­ately reached for com­ment on Satur­day. Reached by phone, Clo­vis said, “I can’t speak to the press.”

Congress es­tab­lished the post in the 1994 Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture Re­or­ga­ni­za­tion Act, and dur­ing the past two pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tions, it has been oc­cu­pied by sci­en­tists and pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­als.

The po­si­tion’s de­scrip­tion was up­dated in the 2008 farm bill to clar­ify that the un­der­sec­re­tary will also hold the ti­tle of the depart­ment’s chief sci­en­tist, and that the po­si­tion “shall be ap­pointed by the Pres­i­dent, by and with the ad­vice and con­sent of the Se­nate, from among dis­tin­guished sci­en­tists with spe­cial­ized train­ing or sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ence in agri­cul­tural re­search, ed­u­ca­tion, and eco­nomics.”

In 2001, then-Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush ap­pointed Joseph Jen, a com­par­a­tive bio­chem­istry PhD who had headed the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia’s Divi­sion of Food Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy and served as the dean of the Col­lege of Agri­cul­ture at Cal­i­for­nia Polytech­nic State Univer­sity in San Luis Obispo. He nom­i­nated Gale Buchanan, a plant phys­i­ol­o­gist, to the post in 2006.

When Barack Obama took of­fice he tapped Ra­jiv Shah, who holds both a med­i­cal de­gree and a mas­ter of sci­ence in health eco­nomics from the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, for the post.

Cather­ine Woteki, who earned her doc­tor­ate from Vir­ginia Tech and who held se­nior po­si­tions at both USDA, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices and the White House Of­fice of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, served as Agri­cul­ture’s chief sci­en­tist from Sept. 16, 2010, un­til Jan. 20, 2017. A food nutri­tion ex­pert, Woteki served as Iowa State Univer­sity’s dean of agri­cul­ture for five years be­tween Bill Clin­ton’s and Obama’s time in of­fice.

The cur­rent act­ing un­der­sec­re­tary, Ann Bar­tuska, is de­scribed as an ecosys­tem ecol­o­gist who has served on mul­ti­ple sci­en­tific coun­cils and pan­els, in­clud­ing the United Na­tions In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Bio­di­ver­sity and Ecosys­tem Ser­vices.

Ri­cardo Sal­vador, direc­tor of the food and en­vi­ron­ment pro­gram at the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists, crit­i­cized the prospect of Clo­vis’s se­lec­tion.

“If the pres­i­dent goes for­ward with this nom­i­na­tion, it’ll be yet another ex­am­ple of bla­tant dis­missal of the value of sci­en­tific ex­per­tise among his ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pointees,” Sal­vador said in a state­ment. “Con­tin­u­ing to choose pol­i­tics over sci­ence will give farm­ers and con­sumers lit­tle con­fi­dence that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has their in­ter­ests at heart.”

Woteki said in an in­ter­view with Pro-Pub­lica on Fri­day that since the po­si­tion serves as the agency’s chief sci­en­tist, the oc­cu­pant “should be a per­son who eval­u­ates the sci­en­tific body of ev­i­dence and moves ap­pro­pri­ately from there.”

In the past, Clo­vis has chal­lenged the sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that hu­man ac­tiv­ity is the pri­mary driver of cli­mate change over the last 50 years. In a 2014 in­ter­view with Iowa Pub­lic Ra­dio, Clo­vis sug­gested that “a lot of the sci­ence is junk sci­ence. It’s not proven; I don’t think there’s any sub­stan­tive in­for­ma­tion avail­able to me that doesn’t raise as many ques­tions as it does an­swers. So I’m a skep­tic.”

In the same ra­dio in­ter­view, Clo­vis said, “I have enough of a sci­ence back­ground to know when I’m be­ing boofed,” though he did not de­tail any past re­search ex­pe­ri­ence in­volv­ing the hard sciences.

As the un­der­sec­re­tary, is­sues re­lated to cli­mate change would fall un­der Clo­vis’s purview. A 2010 Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment re­port, “A Roadmap for USDA Sci­ence,” states that “agri­cul­tural and forestry ecosys­tems are cli­mate de­pen­dent and could be af­fected in myr­iad ways by a chang­ing cli­mate” and sug­gests that the agency “an­tic­i­pate and ac­com­mo­date cli­mate change ef­fects such that agri­cul­ture, forestry, and U.S. pro­duc­ers re­al­ize net ben­e­fits.”

While Clo­vis does not ap­pear to have con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search in the hard sciences, he is a vet­eran Republican Party ac­tivist who joined Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign early on in the 2016 cy­cle. He also served as a pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics at Morn­ing­side Col­lege in Sioux City, Iowa, and made an un­suc­cess­ful run for the U.S. Se­nate in 2014.

Dur­ing that run, Clo­vis de­scribed his cre­den­tials in an Iowa Pub­lic Ra­dio in­ter­view thusly: “25 years in the mil­i­tary, and the var­i­ous jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties I had while serv­ing the na­tion, my ex­pe­ri­ence as a busi­ness man, and my aca­demic prepa­ra­tion … my ex­pe­ri­ence in a va­ri­ety of other fields, in­clud­ing home­land se­cu­rity, for­eign pol­icy, na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy, cre­at­ing jobs and all those things.”

In 2015, Clo­vis took a leave of ab­sence from his job at Morn­ing­side Col­lege to join the Trump cam­paign as a chief pol­icy ad­viser.

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