Iowa’s Sam Clovis is no scientist, but that didn’t stop Donald Trump from nominating him for the top USDA science job

Sam Clovis speaking at a Trump Campaign rally in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 19, 2016. — photo by Alan Hanson via Wikimedia

President Donald Trump has decided the chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn’t need to be a scientist, so on Wednesday, Trump nominated Sam Clovis for the job. Making Clovis, a non-scientist best known for hosting a rightwing radio talk show in Sioux City, the USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics would break with the tradition of finding a qualified scientist for the position, and it might break the law.

On Thursday, the Union of Concerned Scientists denounced the Clovis nomination as “unacceptable and illegal.”

The United States Code requires that the USDA’s undersecretary for research, education and economics — who also serves as the agency’s chief scientist — be chosen from among “distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics.” Clovis has no such training or experience, and is therefore legally and scientifically unqualified to direct nearly $3 billion a year in research grants and ensure that research supported by and scientific advice provided to the department is “held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.”

As ProPublica notes, Christine Woteki, the undersecretary in the Obama administration, “holds a Ph.D. in human nutrition and served as the first undersecretary for food safety at the USDA during the Clinton administration. She was then the dean of the school of agriculture at Iowa State University before becoming the global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc.”

Clovis, on the other hand, has a B.S. in political science, an MBA and a Ph.D. in public administration. Between 2005 and 2015, he was a professor of business and public administration at Morningside College in Sioux City. According to ProPublica, Clovis “has published almost no academic work” and his “published works do not appear to include any scientific papers.”

During his time at Morningside College, Clovis did establish a successful career in rightwing talk radio, as the host of “Impact with Sam Clovis” on KSCJ-AM in Sioux City. The Sioux City Journal described Clovis as “something of a rock star…with Siouxland tea party people,” at the beginning of his unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2014.

Clovis became the Iowa state campaign director for Rick Perry’s presidential campaign in 2015. Clovis said at the time he would go “through the gates of hell” for Perry. Instead of doing that, Clovis quit the cash-strapped Perry campaign in August 2015, and joined the Trump campaign as a co-chair and policy advisor. After Trump became president, he appointed Clovis to the ill-defined post of senior White House advisor within the USDA. The Washington Post described Clovis as “Trump’s eyes and ears” at the agency.

To become undersecretary, Clovis must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Little Village reached out to the offices of Sen. Chuck Grassley and Sen. Joni Ernst for comment on the Clovis nomination, but has not yet received replies.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue did issue a statement praising the nomination. Clovis “looks at every problem with a critical eye, relying on sound science and data, and will be the facilitator and integrator we need,” according to Perdue, a politician from Georgia with no background in science.

Clovis displayed his critical eye during a 2014 interview with Iowa Public Radio. Asked if he accepted the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are a primary cause of climate change, Clovis replied, “I am extremely skeptical. I have looked at the science and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed. And a lot of the science is junk science.”

In its press release, the Union of Concerned Scientist cited Clovis’ record as “a vocal climate denier,” as one the reasons he is an unfit choice for the top scientific position at the USDA.

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