By Mike Lavender, Union of Concerned Scientists
President Trump is dangerously close to violating the law (no, not what you’re thinking!). Recently, word began circulating that the President plans to fill the role of Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture (USDA) with…you guessed it, someone who has no scientific background. If the nomination of Sam Clovis—a conservative talk show radio host and former Trump campaign co-chair with a doctoral degree in public administration—moves forward, it would not only be in direct violation of the law, but would risk the safety of our food and water, and the well-being of thousands of American farmers and communities.
One scientist, two hats…
Of the thousands of scientists that work with USDA, many do so to advance agricultural research. USDA invests billions in agricultural research annually—$2.9 billion in FY2016—and that investment is overseen by the Under Secretary of Research, Extension, and Economics (REE).
The REE Under Secretary—the position for which Clovis’ name has been floated—is responsible for disbursing all of these funds through dozens of programs and entities, such as the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), and the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative (OREI), all of which invest in research that supports farmers, rural communities, and consumers.
But that’s not all. The REE Under Secretary also fills the role of USDA’s Chief Scientist. The Chief Scientist is in charge of the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS), which is tasked with identifying, prioritizing, and evaluating “Department-wide agricultural research, education, and extension needs.” A core component of this work is the responsibility to advance scientific integrity at USDA by “ensuring that research supported by and scientific advice provided to the Department and its stakeholders is held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.”
…and three reasons to say no
So, even though Clovis isn’t a scientist, does that make him unfit for the job? According to the U.S. Code, yes! But that’s not the only thing going against his potential nomination:
- It would violate the law. The REE Under Secretary is a tremendously important position, responsible for investing billions of dollars into agricultural research that should help U.S. farmers, communities, and consumers. Congress acknowledged this by cementing the following in statute: “The Under Secretary [of REE] 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.” (7 U.S.C. 6971). Yet, what’s known of Clovis’ background demonstrates virtually no “specialized training or significant experience” in any of the relevant fields.
- Functions & duties. As written by Congress, one of the primary duties of the REE Under Secretary is to “identify, address, and prioritize current and emerging agricultural research, education, and extension needs.” This task requires a sound understanding of the breadth of agricultural scientific literature, and furthermore, a belief in numbers and facts. Former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said recently that it would be “challenging” to have someone without a scientific background as REE Under Secretary, and former REE Under Secretary Catherine Wotecki said that the role should be filled by “a person who evaluates the scientific body of evidence and moves appropriately from there.” Yet, Clovis has called even the most basic scientific research into question. In 2014, while running unsuccessfully for an Iowa Senate seat, Clovis twice said he was “skeptical” of the science of climate change (here and here). If Clovis were to take the Under Secretary position at USDA, his skepticism would transform from an ignorant personal belief to an egregious affront to American farmers and rural communities. Because whether he believes it or not, farmers are experiencing the effects of a changing climate every day. From hotter summers that hurt crop yields, to more extreme rains that wash soils away, to more erratic winters that threaten cold-requiring crops, the obstacles farmers are facing are real. They deserve the attention of someone who understands, rather than dismisses, their challenges. And if, like me, you’re not a farmer, the scientific research supported by the USDA impacts you too. From food safety, to basic nutrition, to water quality – no matter where you live, USDA supported research is finding answers which will lead to a safer, healthier life for millions of American families.
- Scientific integrity. The Chief Scientist is responsible for the advancement of scientific integrity at USDA, which recently improved their scientific integrity policy. In April 2017, the USDA Office of Inspector General released survey data in an attempt to quantify what USDA scientists thought of the Departments’ scientific integrity policies. While the survey has recently been removed from the website (you can still find the full survey here), among the findings were 29 scientists (2 percent of those surveyed) who indicated that entities external to USDA had pressured them to alter their work, and 42 scientists (3 percent of those surveyed) who indicated that a Department official had pressured them to omit or significantly alter their research findings for reasons other than technical merit. For an individual with no scientific background or expertise, it can be next to impossible to oversee let alone improve an issue as complex and important as scientific integrity. This is particularly true when that individual has questioned even the most basic science (see #2).
On November 8, 2016, President Trump rode a wave of support from rural America into the Oval Office. Since then, his Administration has abandoned even the most elemental scientific facts. For the rural Americans who helped catapult him to the Presidency, this has become particularly poignant.
Unfortunately, the nomination of Sam Clovis isn’t a solution. It will only make the wound even deeper.