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