Scientist Weighs In On USDA Head Pick: He Has ‘Literally No Degree’ Or Experience For The Job

Oct 6, 2017

It’s no secret that the Trump administration is often at odds with scientists. His recent agency nominations continue to reflect that. Sam Clovis is Trump’s pick for Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Clovis has been many things —  Air Force fighter pilot, conservative talk show host, defeated U.S. Senate candidate, co-chair of Trump’s presidential campaign. But one thing not on his resume? Scientist. On the latest episode of Trump on Earth, a real scientist weighs in. Mike Lavender is senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment program. 

If  confirmed, Clovis would oversee USDA’s $3 billion research budget, which includes research to help farmers and ranchers adapt to climate change. Clovis has called global warming “junk science” despite 97 percent of climate scientists agreeing that climate-warming trends over the past century are “extremely likely” due to human activities. “I’ve looked at the science and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed,” Clovis told Iowa Public Radio in a 2014 interview.

Congress placed some pretty strict guidelines – actual laws –  that make this job hard to fill. But what happens when those laws are overlooked, even ignored, by the President?

“In 2008, Congress wrote into law that this specific position, the Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture, needs to have significant training and experience in agricultural research, education in economics," Lavender said. "And when you look at Mr. Clovis’s background, there is literally no degree or no work experience that qualifies him for this job."

"It’s a key position that is often behind the scenes and doesn’t get much attention, but it really goes to investing taxpayer money into things that can keep our food safe, that can keep farmers productive and profitable, and that can keep our water clean," he added. 

A number of farm groups, the American Farm Bureau among them, have sent a letter in support of Sam Clovis’s nomination. They say there are plenty of scientists at the USDA, and what American agriculture needs is a strong advocate. And that’s what they see in Sam Clovis. Valentine argues that those two things don’t have to be separate.

“There are dozens of qualified individuals who can fill this role very capably. And if you look back over 20 plus years in Republican and Democratic administrations, there’s always been a qualified individual in this position," Lavender said. "So the argument that passion and advocacy is Mr. Clovis' strongest suit — we would argue that that isn’t enough. When you’re investing $3 billion of taxpayer money, passion isn’t enough to get the job done. You have to know what you’re talking about ... You need to have a solid understanding of the background of our food and farm system to make those investments work in a strategic way that actually helps people.”

More than 60 percent of top science posts in the federal government that require Senate confirmation do not have a nominee, according to an analysis by the  Washington Post. And Valentine argues that there are significant consequences to losing “scientific voices in the room.”

“When you have more political voices, and in some cases only political voices, speaking up when there’s a need for science, and a need for science-based governance, that’s a problem because there are so many questions…We’re not going to get cleaner air. We’re not going to get cleaner water. We’re not going to get safer food by making calculations that are other than science based," Lavender said. 

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Want to hear more? You can check out our full conservation with Mike Lavendar on this week’s episode of Trump on Earth

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