The Trump administration’s attack on basic science continues apace, with rumors circulating that President Donald Trump will soon tap former campaign policy adviser and one-time conservative radio talk show host Sam Clovis to be the lead scientist at the Department of Agriculture. Trump will reportedly name Clovis to lead the USDA’s Research, Education and Economics division despite the fact that Clovis has no background in the hard sciences, as well as no demonstrable policy experience with either food or agriculture.
The USDA’s undersecretary of research, education and economics oversees the entire scientific mission of the USDA, as well as the department’s economic agencies — perhaps the only part of the job for which Clovis has any qualifications. Past undersecretaries have been biochemists, plant physiologists, food nutrition experts, and public health experts. Clovis has a doctorate in public administration and was a professor of economics at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He also unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2014.
Clovis joined the Trump campaign in 2015, as national campaign co-chair. He reportedly had a hand in developing the Trump campaign’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, which caused friction between Clovis and his employer at the time, Morningside College. According to Politico, Clovis was also responsible for enlisting Carter Page to join the Trump campaign. Page has since come under intense scrutiny for his ties to the Kremlin.
Since Trump’s election in November, Clovis has been the administration’s senior policy adviser at the USDA. In January, he signed off on a memo sent to USDA scientists telling them to cease publication of “outward facing” documents, like news releases and fact sheets. Another memo instructed department officials to clear any media communications directly with the acting secretary.
Clovis is an outspoken climate denier, telling Iowa Public Radio in a 2014 interview that climate science is “junk science” and “not proven.” In October, he told E&E News that a Trump administration would not prioritize climate science in its agriculture policy.
“I think our position is very clearly [that] Mr. Trump is a skeptic on climate change, and we need more science. Once we get more science, we’re going to make decisions,” Clovis said.
If confirmed by the Senate, Clovis would be in charge of the USDA’s efforts on climate change, which significantly increased under the Obama administration. Catherine Woteki, who served as undersecretary for research, education and economics in the Obama administration, was integral in launching the department’s “Climate Hubs” in 2014, which aim to give farmers more on-the-ground information about climate science and adaptation in their region. She also chaired the “Global Research Alliance to Reduce Agricultural Greenhouse Gasses,” a coalition of countries around the world created to help share climate science and data.
“This position is the chief scientist of the Department of Agriculture,” Woteki told ProPublica in an interview. “It should be a person who evaluates the scientific body of evidence and moves appropriately from there.”
Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists also expressed concern about Clovis’ appointment, saying in a statement that the USDA’s chief scientists should be a scientist, not a political ally.
“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. “Continuing to choose politics over science will give farmers and consumers little confidence that the administration has their interests at heart.”
Clovis would not be the only climate denier appointed to the USDA by Trump. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, has a history of climate denial, calling climate science “a running joke among the public” in a 2014 op-ed published in the National Review.