Trump’s pick for USDA’s “chief scientist” may actually be illegal

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Wednesday night announced President Trump’s new nominee for a top post at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). And the choice is already stirring up controversy.

That’s because the man tapped to be the next undersecretary of USDA’s Research, Education and Economics (REE) division is Sam Clovis, a former conservative talk radio host with scant experience in both science and agriculture (other than being from Iowa).

The nomination itself is not a surprise. Clovis, a former Trump detractor who ultimately became his campaign co-chair and policy advisor, has been helping to oversee the new administration’s transition at USDA since January. For months, it’s been rumored that he’d be given an official position at the agency. And though critics say Clovis is unfit to head REE, it should be mentioned that he is not a policy know-nothing. The formidable team at Politico’s “Morning Ag” notes being impressed with his wonk chops, and he’s been seen speaking without prepared notes on a range of topics from nutrition to food safety.

“This is the person who oversees science at a vast federal department that really touches on all American’s lives every day.”

Still, the scientific community is concerned that Clovis doesn’t have the skills for what amounts to a demanding, highly technical position—and some say his appointment may not even be legal: As stipulated by the 2008 farm bill, the undersecretary is to hold the title of “Chief Scientist” of the department. Ricardo Salvador, who directs the food and agriculture program of the nonprofit advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), argued in a statement released Thursday that Clovis would be an “unacceptable and illegal choice” under title 7,  a section of the United States Code referring to agriculture, which stipulates the undersecretary must have a demonstrated scientific background, specifically that the nominee must be chosen from among “distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.”

Clovis is a “distinguished scientist” by no stretch of the imagination. He does have a doctorate in Public Administration from the University of Alabama—a now-defunct degree program that, according to ProPublica, likely did not require any science courses. He’s published journal articles on topics relating to homeland security, but is not the author of any scientific papers.

More troubling to his detractors, however, is that Clovis has publicly identified himself as skeptical of the role of human activity in climate change—a prospect that has achieved near-universal consensus in the scientific community. In 2014, when he was a Republican candidate to replace Democratic Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Clovis told Iowa Public Radio: “I have looked at the science and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed.”

Karen Stillerman, senior analyst at UCS, tells me Clovis’ nomination is cause for extreme concern.

“This person really leads both oversight of a very large annual research investment—about 3 billion dollars a year—that the USDA makes in science around food and agricultural issues, and also ensures the basic scientific integrity of everything that the various scientific agencies do,” she says. “I think having someone with training in science means that the person understands the scientific process as well as what goes into choosing what questions to ask, where to invest funding, and also advising the agency how to apply science to the policy decisions USDA is making every day.”

For UCS, the move is just the latest sign of the Trump administration’s antagonism towards the hard sciences. In a report published today titled “Sidelining Science Since Day One: How the Trump Administration Has Harmed Public Health and Safety in Its First Six Months,” UCS establishes a timeline of the administration’s anti-science efforts, from rolling back environmental regulations and appointing industry-friendly cabinet members, to halting key research and stoking “culture fear” within agencies. “Scientists are speaking to the media anonymously out of fear of retaliation,” according to the report, and “some are afraid to utter the words ‘climate change.’”

It’s not clear how much pushback Clovis will face in the Senate, where he still needs to be confirmed, or if any enforcement mechanisms will kick in if he is in fact appointed. Either way, there’s a lot at stake.

“This is the person who oversees science at a vast federal department that really touches on all American’s lives every day—whether it’s food safety, childhood obesity, the efficiency or profitability of farms, or how we prevent our farm system from polluting our drinking water,” Stillerman says. “All these things are important to Americans on a daily basis.”

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Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.