7 Questions the Senate Should Ask Trump’s New USDA Chief Scientist Nominee

November 14, 2018 | 5:17 pm
Preston Keres/USDA
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Back in early August (or roughly two Trump years ago), I wrote about the president’s nomination of Scott Hutchins to head up science at the US Department of Agriculture. In that post, I argued that Hutchins, an entomologist with a 30-year career at pesticide-maker Dow, is the wrong choice for the job.

On November 28, the Senate agriculture committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Hutchins, their chance to interview him for the position of USDA under secretary for research, education, and economics. Following are seven questions I think they should ask.

1. As chief scientist, would you push back on efforts to cut, marginalize, and politicize USDA research? The position Hutchins is seeking has, until now, overseen four agencies that make up the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area, which collectively carry out or facilitate nearly $3 billion worth of research on food and agriculture topics every year. But in August, Secretary Perdue dropped a bombshell with an abrupt reorganization proposal that would pluck the Economic Research Service (ERS) figuratively from within REE and place it in the Secretary’s office. Perdue’s announcement also included a plan to literally move ERS, along with National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), to as-yet-undetermined locations outside the DC area. More than 1,100 of Hutchins’ fellow scientists recently signed a letter opposing the move, which threatens to marginalize and politicize the agencies, and would cost millions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on their important science work. And even before the reorganization proposal, the Trump administration had been gunning for ERS in particular—its FY2019 budget request, unveiled in February, would have cut the agency’s budget in half. What would Hutchins do to push back on these anti-science moves?

2. Would you champion independent economic analysis at the USDA that helps policymakers and the public understand the economic impact of taxpayer investments and federal policies…even when it doesn’t support the administration’s political agenda? ERS—the agency that Perdue and the White House seem most determined to muzzle—plays an important role in building from data collected by the USDA to illuminate the socio-economics of food and agriculture. US farms and farmers are impacted not only by market forces of supply and demand, but also by the sometimes-unexpected consequences of public policies. ERS has a history of publishing reports that examine policy implications and overarching trends, bringing life to complex but critical data; examples include recent reports on consolidation of agriculture, public research funding, and food availability and dietary trends. The Trump White House may not always appreciate ERS findings, but maintaining unvarnished, independent analysis on a wide range of topics is particularly important in this era of low crop prices and escalating trade tensions. As chief scientist, would Hutchins go to bat for such research?

3. As a scientist, are you concerned about the administration’s science record? Why or why not? And if you’re confirmed, how will you ensure scientific integrity at the USDA? The Trump administration’s record on respecting science in federal decision-making is abysmal. And while the USDA hasn’t seen the same level of attacks on science as, say, Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department, our 2018 survey of USDA scientists shows there is cause for concern. What would Hutchins do to swim against this administration’s tide and maintain a high standard of scientific integrity at the USDA? Will he commit to uphold the department’s scientific integrity policy, and to resist politically-motivated moves that would undercut the ability of the thousands of USDA scientists under his purview to do their vitally important jobs?

4. How would your pesticide industry ties affect USDA efforts to help farmers reduce their dependence on expensive and dangerous chemical inputs? Do you think that’s an important goal? Why or why not? These are increasingly important questions for the Senate to ask, as problems brought on by decades of over-reliance on pesticides come home to roost. In August, for example, a court ordered the EPA to ban all remaining agricultural uses of Dow’s brain-damaging insecticide chlorpyrifos (which former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had refused to do the year before). Days later, a San Francisco jury handed down a $289 million judgment against Monsanto in the case of a former school groundskeeper who developed terminal cancer after years of spraying the company’s popular Roundup herbicide. Then there’s the ongoing dicamba debacle: Another widely-used weedkiller, dicamba has many farmers in a bind because of its propensity to drift from fields of soybeans and cotton specifically engineered to resist it, and damage neighboring farmers’ non-resistant crops. By the middle of this year’s growing season, weed scientists had estimated that well over a million acres of soybeans—at least 1.2 percent of the entire US crop for the year—had already suffered drift damage. Hutchins’ longtime employer DowDuPont is one of several companies that sells dicamba and dicamba-resistant seed and has been named in an ongoing lawsuit over drift damage. Clearly, farmers (and eaters) need safer, more sustainable solutions, but the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction—the White House budget request earlier this year would have eliminated the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative and cut the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program by nearly 30 percent. As a pesticide industry insider, would Hutchins be able to rise above the interests of his long-term employers and colleagues, and to consider instead the larger public interest to be served through investment in these valuable research and education programs?

5. Do you accept the science of climate change, and would you increase support for the evidence-based tools farmers need to build resilience to a warmer, more volatile climate? Many Trump administration officials—including the president himself and Secretary Perdue—have scoffed at the science of climate change. But when it comes to farmers and our food supply, inaction on climate change just not an option. What does Hutchins think about the contribution of soil health to climate resilience and productivity? As chief scientist, would he stand behind USDA investments in research, education, and extension to help farmers and ranchers better cope with our changing climate?

6. What scientific and economic research would help policymakers better understand and improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? Formerly known as the food stamps program, SNAP has been at the center of controversy in the farm bill, and it’s under attack by the Trump administration. But in 2014, this program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and abundant data show that SNAP is a smart investment in the nation’s health and well-being and a boon to local economies. As chief scientist, what research would Hutchins prioritize to improve understanding of the program’s benefits and how it could be improved to better serve public health and Americans still struggling economically?

7. How would you help ensure that the next update of federal dietary guidelines is based on the best science? The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services recently embarked on a two-year process to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. My colleague Sarah Reinhardt recently wrote about what we expect from that process—including our concerns that it will be particularly vulnerable, under the Trump administration, to influence by food industry interests. Hutchins would not be directly responsible for the process—it will be run out of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which Secretary Perdue reorganized last year, and which is led by a Trump appointee with zero nutrition background. But as chief scientist, Hutchins could play an important role. By prioritizing USDA nutrition research over the next two years to inform the process, he could help ensure that the 2020 DGAs are based on sound science in the interest of public health. Will he?