The chief scientist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is typically a low-profile job in any presidential administration. But President Trump’s nomination of his former Iowa campaign manager for the post is raising concern in the scientific community and beyond about the politicization of science policy in the Trump administration.
Among the concerns: Sam Clovis isn’t a scientist. He holds a doctorate, but it’s in public administration and not a scientific discipline.
If confirmed, Clovis would oversee the agency’s $3 billion research budget, which funds, among other things, research to help farmers and ranchers adapt to climate change. Clovis is currently the White House liaison to USDA.
As a Senate candidate in 2014, Clovis told Iowa Public Radio that he was skeptical that human activity is driving climate change.
“I have looked at the science,” Clovis said, “and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed. And a lot of what we see is junk science.”
There is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence showing that humans are causing the climate to warm by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a view supported by data collected by government agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Fighter pilot, professor, talk radio host
Clovis has worn many hats. He was an Air Force fighter pilot and taught economics and business at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He is probably best known for hosting a conservative talk show.
“Frankly, I’m appalled,” says Brenda Brink, a member of the Iowa Farmers Union, “because he’s not made any bones about being a scientist and yet he’s been appointed to this position where he’s elevated to the level of a scientist.”
That is not all that is controversial about Clovis. As reported by CNN, he used to run a blog on which he wrote racially charged posts, once related being gay with pedophilia and questioned whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
“Normally, who you name to chief scientist at USDA wouldn’t be front-page news,” says Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, adding that Clovis is unqualified.
“If he makes decisions on the basis of loyalty to a new president or political ideology,” Salvador says, “we’re afraid this is just going to be very noxious to responsible, science-based decision-making.”
In the past, Clovis has shown a willingness to upset a key constituency of USDA: farmers. As a Senate candidate, Clovis questioned the value of federally subsidized crop insurance, which many farmers rely on. (It is not a program Clovis would oversee as chief scientist.)
“Most of the Iowa farmers I talk to would just as soon have the government out of their lives and that includes the insurance programs,” Clovis told Iowa Public Radio in 2014.
Potential confirmation fight
Clovis does have powerful allies, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican and member of the agriculture committee. Grassley has sought to downplay the debate about Clovis’ qualifications by equating his degree in public administration to a degree in economics and argues that background does qualify Clovis for the job.
“There’s a very close relationship between science and decisions that the government makes in science and the impact on the economy,” says Grassley.
“He’s not just completely going to be a political hack,” says Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich, who got to know Clovis during his Senate bid. “I do think that he will listen to people who have the scientific knowledge.”
Democrats are signaling they will try to make it difficult to confirm Clovis.
The top Democrat on the agriculture committee, Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, points to a provision in the law that specifically requires that chief scientist nominees be chosen from “among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education or economics.”
“In my judgment, I don’t see how in the world he meets the requirements of the law,” Stabenow says. “I think this is certainly something we’re exploring.”
Stabenow says Clovis may need a waiver to get the job, which would need 60 votes from the full Senate instead of the simple majority needed for confirmation.
“We would have to see,” Stabenow says, “but certainly that’s a much higher threshold for him to have to reach.”
At least two other Democratic senators, Kamala Harris of California and Chuck Schumer of New York, also oppose the nomination, even as two dozen farm and commodity groups have signaled their support for Clovis.
Clovis’ confirmation hearing before the Senate agriculture committee has not been scheduled.