Sam Clovis at a campaign event in Iowa in 2016.

Alex Hanson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Updated: Trump pick for USDA science post has drawn darts for lack of technical background

President Donald Trump today announced his intention to nominate Samuel Clovis to be the under secretary of agriculture in charge of the U.S. Department of Agrculture's (USDA's) research, education, and economic analysis programs. Clovis is currently the Senior White House Advisor to USDA. The pick of Clovis, a former economics professor who has little science background, is likely to draw criticism from some quarters, as a story ScienceInsider published this past May noted (see below).
 
According to a White House statement, Clovis most recently served as the chief policy advisor and national co-chair of the Trump-Pence campaign. Here is the rest of the statement:
He came to the campaign from Morningside College where he was a professor of economics.  Mr. Clovis holds a B.S. in political science from the U.S. Air Force Academy, an M.B.A. from Golden Gate University and a Doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama.  He is also a graduate of both the Army and Air Force War Colleges.  After graduating from the Academy, Mr. Clovis spent 25 years serving in the Air Force.  He retired as the Inspector General of the North American Aerospace Defense Command  and the United States Space Command and was a command pilot.  Mr. Clovis is married to the former Charlotte Chase of Piketon, OH.  He is originally from rural central Kansas.

Clovis "was one of the first people through the door at USDA in January and has become a trusted advisor and steady hand as we continue to work for the people of agriculture," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "He looks at every problem with a critical eye, relying on sound science and data, and will be the facilitator and integrator we need. Dr. Clovis has served this nation proudly since he was a very young man, and I am happy he is continuing to serve.”

Here is our story from 15 May, which was originally published by E&E News:

President Trump may be adding to his administration's challenges by picking someone without a science background to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) research programs, former agriculture secretary Dan Glickman said today.

The Clinton administration official told E&E News that, while he doesn't know Sam Clovis — reported to be Trump's pick for undersecretary for research, education and economics — scientific knowledge is especially useful in a position that requires coordination with scientific agencies within the government.

"Not to have someone with a scientific background in that position is going to be challenging for them," Glickman said.

Clovis' likely nomination, reported by the farm magazine Agri-Pulse and ProPublica, raised caution among advocates for agricultural research, who say they worry the administration will pay less attention to the effects of climate change on wheat and other vital crops, among other issues. The position is one of the key undersecretary slots at the department, groups involved in agricultural science said.

"He's a political hack. He's a political talk show host," said a representative of one group that advocates for some of the programs Clovis would oversee, who requested that his name be withheld because of ongoing work with the agency.

While the position demands either scientific background or problem-solving skills in a big bureaucracy, this advocate said, "he's not either of those."

Not to have someone with a scientific background in that position is going to be challenging for them.

Dan Glickman, former secretary of agriculture

Clovis, 67, was a co-chairman of Trump's campaign and a top adviser on agricultural issues. He's from Sioux City, Iowa, and is a former college economics professor and conservative talk radio host. He has a doctoral degree in public administration from the University of Alabama.

He joined the Trump campaign in the summer of 2015, switching from Rick Perry's campaign, and helped Trump build support among conservative, rural voters in Iowa who remembered Clovis' own run for U.S. Senate there (Greenwire, Nov. 7, 2016).

Glickman said that he doesn't know Clovis but that the lack of background in the issues he would handle stands out. Responsibilities include research on crop pests and diseases, the effects of pesticides, and the response to animal diseases such as avian flu — which has been on the rise. He would interact on a regular basis with scientifically savvy officials at the National Institutes of Health and other agencies and would need to understand the language, Glickman said.

"The whole agricultural world depends on this," said Glickman, who serves on the board of directors of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.

"I wouldn't be qualified for that job, I don't think," Glickman said.

While the choice of Clovis is clearly a break from past administrations, the most important qualification may be a good understanding of agriculture and the workings of the federal land grant college system, where much of the publicly supported research is done, said Lee Van Wychen, science policy director for the Weed Science Society of America.

As long as Clovis demonstrates that kind of knowledge to WSSA members, "I think that'd be OK with them," Van Wychen said.

And while his advanced degree isn't in science, "it's not as if he's completely out of the loop in higher education," Van Wychen said.

The undersecretary's position requires Senate confirmation.

Clovis has built support among farm groups in Iowa.

"At first blush, it would seem like a good fit for Sam," said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, who once tried to recruit Clovis to write a research paper for the organization. "He is incredibly intelligent and has an academic background."

The choice of Clovis reflects a wider approach in the administration that steers away from scientists, said Rush Holt, executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey.

"It's not just about having a science adviser. It's having science present in each agency, at all levels," Holt said.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2017. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net

Editor's note: AAAS is the publisher of ScienceInsider.