Trump’s nominee for USDA “chief scientist” is not a scientist

Sam Clovis, a climate change denier, has no background in science or agriculture

Sam Clovis speaking at a Trump rally in Iowa, Sept. 2016

President Trump looks to nominate Sam Clovis, a former economics professor and conservative talk-radio host, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top scientific position.

If appointed, Clovis, a climate change denier, would oversee projects ranging from food nutrition to the effects of climate change on crop development. Under the 2008 Farm Bill, this position is supposed to serve as the agency’s “chief scientist” and be chosen “from among distinguished scientists with specialized or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” Clovis checks one of these boxes. Maybe.

An early advisor to the Trump campaign, Clovis has a master’s in business administration and a doctoral degree in public administration, and appears to have no published scientific or academic work to his name. In fact, Kara McCullough, the recently-crowned Miss USA who holds a Bachelor’s of Science in chemistry, might just be more qualified to lead the office than Clovis.

The decision to nominate Clovis begs the question: would the administration be more appropriately staffed if Trump pulled candidates from the Miss USA pageant?

In a 2014 interview, Clovis called evidence of climate change “junk science,” claiming that he has “enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed.”

“I don’t think there’s any substantive information available to me that doesn’t raise as many questions as it does answers,” Clovis said in the same interview. “So I’m a skeptic.”

Source: Pexels

Although he denies basic climate science, Clovis told reporters last September he supports crop insurance, an important allotment of the upcoming Farm Bill. Talking about agriculture policy last fall, Clovis defended crop insurance in the Farm Bill. “You can pay for 100 percent of a devastating natural disaster or you can go out and pay 50 percent and make sure that it doesn’t happen, or at least protect the people from it happening,” Clovis said. “So I think that crop insurance would be an important part of any farm bill we would approach.”

Since Clovis denies man-made climate change, any attempt to “make sure [a natural disaster] doesn’t happen” will necessarily fall short. According to a Risky Business report, increases in temperature due to climate change will shift agricultural zones and likely result in more disasters such as floods, droughts and storms.

Catherine Woteki, who was the undersecretary to the USDA during the Obama administration, likened appointing Clovis to tapping someone without a medical background to lead the National Institutes of Health. Or, maybe like nominating a brain surgeon to be the head of the Department for Housing and Urban Development? But that would be ridiculous.

Woteki, in comparison to Clovis, holds a Ph.D. in human nutrition and has held many positions related to food before she was nominated for the position of Chief Scientists for the USDA. She was the dean of the school of agriculture at Iowa State University, the global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc., as well as the first undersecretary for food safety at the USDA during the Clinton administration.

Still, Sam Clovis’ nomination is not an aberration. Trump continues to appoint leaders without proper experience or competency in the field they will be advising. With the Farm Bill coming up for discussion in 2018, this nomination will have consequences for the American people. If you eat food, the Farm Bill affects you. Long story short, the Farm Bill impacts everyone.

Clovis may want to check in with American farmers before taking his new job. Farmers across the country are adjusting to a “new normal” of volatile weather putting crops at risk due to climate change. Because if appointed, Clovis will have to deal with the realities of a warming planet whether he likes it or not.


Garrett Blad writes for I Heart Climate Scientists and other publications on climate change, policy and social change. You can follow him @gblad.