Ep. 23: Scientists Need Not Apply?

Sam Clovis has been tapped to be Head Scientist at the USDA.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Sam Clovis has been tapped to be Head Scientist at the USDA.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

UPDATE: 11/2/2017: Sam Clovis, President Trump’s pick to be chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is withdrawing his nomination. Clovis, a former Trump campaign official, has been linked to special counsel Robert Mueller’s federal investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election. According to the Washington Post and other sources, Clovis's decision comes just days after court filings indicate that he may have encouraged President Trump's campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos to set up meetings with Russians for the Trump campaign. Clovis was widely criticized as a choice for USDA’s chief scientist because of his lack of scientific background.


Sam Clovis is Trump's pick for Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Clovis has been many things --  Air Force fighter pilot, conservative talk show host, defeated U.S. Senate candidate, co-chair of Trump’s presidential campaign. But one thing not on his resume? Scientist.

If confirmed, Clovis would oversee USDA’s $3 billion research budget, which includes research to help farmers and ranchers adapt to climate change. Clovis has called global warming “junk science” despite 97 percent of climate scientists agreeing that climate-warming trends over the past century are “extremely likely” due to human activities. “I’ve looked at the science and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed,” Clovis told Iowa Public Radio in a 2014 interview.

Congress placed some pretty strict guidelines - actual laws -  that make this job hard to fill. But what happens when those laws are overlooked, even ignored, by the President?

Our guest in this episode of Trump on Earth, Mike Lavender, senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment program, says that’s exactly what is happening with the Clovis pick.

“In 2008, Congress wrote into law that this specific position, the Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture, needs to have significant training and experience in agricultural research, education in economics. And when you look at Mr. Clovis's background, there is literally no degree or no work experience that qualifies him for this job. It's a key position that is often behind the scenes and doesn't get much attention, but it really goes to investing taxpayer money into things that can keep our food safe, that can keep farmers productive and profitable, and that can keep our water clean.”

A number of farm groups, the American Farm Bureau among them, have sent a letter in support of Sam Clovis’s nomination. They say there are plenty of scientists at the USDA, and what American agriculture needs is a strong advocate. And that's what they see in Sam Clovis. Valentine argues that those two things don't have to be separate.

“There are dozens of qualified individuals who can fill this role very capably. And if you look back over 20 plus years in Republican and Democratic administrations, there's always been a qualified individual in this position. So the argument that passion and advocacy is Mr. Corvis’s strongest suit -- we would argue that that isn't enough.  When you're investing $3 billion of taxpayer money, passion isn't enough to get the job done. You have to know what you're talking about.You need to have a solid understanding of the background of our food and farm system to make those investments work in a strategic way that actually helps people.”

More than 60% of top science posts in the federal government that require Senate confirmation do not have a nominee, according to an analysis by the  Washington Post. And Valentine argues that there are significant consequences to losing “scientific voices in the room.”

“When you have more political voices, and in some cases only political voices, speaking up when there's a need for science, and a need for science-based governance ,that's a problem because there are so many questions...We're not going to get cleaner air. We're not going to get cleaner water. We're not going to get safer through by making calculations that are other than science based.”

Mentioned in the episode:

This episode was hosted by Julie Grant. Follow her on Twitter. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalism program.

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