UPDATE, Nov. 2, 2017: Sam Clovis has withdrawn his name from consideration for the USDA chief scientist position.
UPDATE, Nov. 1, 2017: Shortly after I published this post, the Sam Clovis nomination story took an interesting turn. We now know that Clovis is implicated in the Trump campaign’s Russia dealings and has testified before special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury. His confirmation hearing for the position of USDA chief scientist, previously expected Nov. 9, now seems likely to be delayed or cancelled. Read more in the Washington Post.
For months, controversy has swirled around the Trump administration’s…shall we say…deeply flawed nominee for USDA chief scientist. A former business professor, talk radio host, and Trump campaign advisor, Sam Clovis has embraced unfounded conspiracy theories and espoused racist and homophobic views. And did I mention he has no scientific training whatsoever?
It’s true. And while Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is standing by the nomination, thousands of the nation’s scientists are having none of it.
Experts say no way to unqualified “chief scientist”
In a highly unusual move, a group of more than 3,100 scientists and researchers—including leading experts in agriculture and food systems from all 50 states and the District of Columbia—today sent a letter to the Senate agriculture committee expressing opposition to the president’s choice to lead science at the USDA. The letter describes the nomination of the severely under-qualified Sam Clovis to be under secretary for research, education, and economics and chief scientist as “an abandonment of our nation’s commitment to scientifically-informed governance,” and calls on the Senate committee to reject it.
One of the letter’s lead signers is Dr. Mike Hamm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems, and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University. Dr. Hamm has a PhD in human nutrition and decades of experience at the intersection of food and agriculture, and his research interests include community-based food systems, food security, sustainable agriculture and nutrition education. In addition to his academic posts, he served as a member of the governor-appointed Michigan Food Policy Council from 2005 to 2013 and was instrumental in developing the Michigan Good Food Charter.
I asked Dr. Hamm why this nomination has him so concerned, and what the practical impacts might be if Clovis were to take charge of scientific research at the USDA.
KPS: Scientists don’t usually rally by the thousands to oppose nominees for relatively obscure government positions. Why is this nomination so alarming to you personally?
MH: I was really concerned when I heard about this nomination, as were a number of colleagues. We look to the USDA as an authoritative source of scientific, economic, and statistical information about the nation’s food system, and it seemed extremely careless to put all that into the hands of an unqualified person. Also, we rely on the USDA to develop research funding programs that not only tackle issues of concern to agricultural production and the food system right now but also look for probable challenges down the road—finding solutions takes time and thoughtfulness, and it is clear to me that the nominee hasn’t demonstrated the ability to do this in a scientific manner.
KPS: This under secretary position holds the purse strings for $3 billion in annual research grants to universities and other institutions. How significant is that investment in the universe of agricultural and food systems research?
MH: It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this. Whether it’s developing strategies to improve current yields while reducing environmental impacts of agricultural production, or identifying resilience strategies for increasingly prevalent issues, the person in this position has to be both reactive to current events and proactive about likely future scenarios. The under secretary controls the budget for this very broad range of research needs.
KPS: What worries you most about the prospect of the USDA going backward on science?
MH: The breadth of knowledge we now have on a wide range of strategies for agricultural production and the food system is remarkable. We know a great deal about strategies for producing a greater variety and quantity of crops under different conditions and with increasingly agro-ecosystem strategies. To lose this momentum would be a disservice to the agricultural community and to consumers and the general public. Whether it’s water use in California, Texas, and other water challenged states, or late frosts for tart cherries in Michigan, we can ‘see’ an increasing range of challenges in the near future. Going backwards means not thinking about these. Going backwards means not looking for ever more ecologically sound solutions to emerging issues and recognizing that we can often improve the situation to a range of societal issues while improving agriculture. This is frightening.
Scientists speak…but is the Senate listening?
Scientists and their allies around the country have been mobilizing for months to oppose Clovis’s nomination. They’ve published letters to the editor in newspapers across the country, including Chicago, Illinois; Bloomington, Indiana (paywall); Wichita, Kansas; Missoula and Great Falls, Montana; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Nashville, Tennessee; and Spokane, Washington. They’ve also met with Senate staff and delivered petitions from UCS supporters directly to key Senate offices in Maine, Colorado, and Ohio (see photos from the Maine petition delivery below).
Sam Clovis to (finally) get a hearing
Today’s letter comes as the Senate agriculture committee is expected to announce that it will hold a long-awaited hearing on November 9 to hear directly from the nominee, and to dig into Clovis’s credentials and suitability for the chief scientist position. While many Senators, including key Senate leaders, have expressed opposition to the Clovis nomination, others are still uncommitted or even supportive.
Those Senators had better think hard about it, because the scientific community is watching. As 3,100+ experts have now told them, “We expect that when your committee evaluates Clovis’ record and qualifications, you will similarly conclude that he is unfit for this position.”
ACTION NEEDED! The time to act is now, and we can win this fight. The scientists’ letter has been delivered to the Senate, but you can still tell the Senate to reject the Clovis nomination.