Donald Trump’s nomination of his former campaign aide, Sam Clovis, a man with no formal science training, as undersecretary of research, education, and economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture has drawn criticism. The top science position at the agency, the undersecretary is charged with administering $3 billion worth of funds, two-thirds of which are dedicated to research. Clovis, who has stated that he is “extremely skeptical” of climate change science, was previously a conservative talk radio host and professor of business and public policy.
"Clovis has consistently shown a disregard for serious scientific research. He’s said of climate change research that “a lot of the science is junk science” and “not proven,” even though the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is happening and is caused by humans."
A 2008 bill requires that the position be filled “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” Clovis has a doctorate in public administration, but no background in hard science. When The Washington Post reached out to Clovis to ask him about the controversy over his appointment, he told them that he can’t speak to the press.
Mike Lavender, senior Washington representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment program, tells The Progressive that Clovis’s appointment is illegal because he doesn’t meet the qualifications necessary for the position. This especially matters, he argues, because of the effect the USDA’s top scientist can have on the lives of farmers and many others.
“A lack of scientific understanding in this role is going to impact millions of people and is going to impact the investments we make in this country,” Lavender says. “It could end up having a negative effect on a lot of people.”
The position of undersecretary is charged with ensuring scientific integrity in the department. But Clovis has consistently shown a disregard for serious scientific research. He’s said of climate change research that “a lot of the science is junk science” and “not proven,” even though the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is happening and is caused by humans.
The former national co-chair of the Trump campaign and current White House advisor on agriculture policy, Clovis does have his supporters, including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. In a statement, Purdue called Clovis a “trusted advisor and steady hand,” and “the facilitator and integrator we need.” Clovis has also received the support of twenty-two agricultural industry groups.
Even so, Clovis could face a tough Senate confirmation fight. The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, has said she has “strong concerns that Sam Clovis is not qualified.” Delaware Senator Chris Coons and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, both Democrats, have also expressed qualms about the nomination.
And Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has criticized Clovis for stating in 2013 that subsidized crop insurance is unconstitutional, although Clovis has since walked that comment back. But Roberts said of the 2013 remark, “If there is some nominee who is coming before the committee who says crop insurance is unconstitutional, they might as well not show up.”
While Lavender argues that Clovis’s lack of a scientific background and his denial of climate change should be disqualifying, he’s unsure what the Senate will do. But, he says, “There are people on both sides of the aisle looking at this nomination with a critical eye.”
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Clovis’s nomination is just the latest example of the Trump Administration’s disregard for science and efforts to muffle support for environmentalism. Soon after he took office, Trump—who has also denied the existence of climate change—sent a directive to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Interior Department, and the USDA limiting those agency’s communications with the public. He also imposed a federal hiring freeze, which led to a number of unfilled jobs at the EPA. That freeze has now been rescinded, but many positions remain vacant.
And under the direction of climate change denier Scott Pruitt, the EPA has scrubbed information from its website about the Earth’s warming and humans’ impact on long-term temperature increases. Many scientists and activists are also worried that crucial government data on climate change will disappear during the Trump Administration.
Recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report identifying a number of actions Trump and the Republican-led Congress have taken that “diminish the role of science in our democracy.” The report lists thirteen Congressional resolutions signed by Trump that “roll back” science-based protections, such as safe drinking water standards and measures that prevent workers from contact with harmful chemicals.
"Clovis's nomination is just the latest example of the Trump Administration’s disregard for science and efforts to muffle support for environmentalism."
The report also notes that the Trump Administration has “weakened federal advisory committees that provide scientific advice to the government,” has scaled back pollution standards, and has delayed a number of science-based regulations meant to protect localities from chemical spills and workers from dangerous toxins.
These actions have been met with resistance in many forms. In April, more than a million people in over 600 cities around the world participated in the March For Science. Additionally, more than a dozen Democrats with backgrounds in science have announced they are running for Congress.
And after Trump muzzled much of the public communications of the Interior Department—which includes the National Park Service—tweets about climate change appeared on the Badlands National Park Twitter account. Since then, alternative National Park Service and EPA Twitter accounts with thousands of followers each have been created.
Meanwhile, concerns that government climate change data will disappear during Trump’s presidency have spurred a push by scientists and activists around the world to preserve that data.
Lavender argues that protecting scientific inquiry is extremely important; a disregard for science “is really a disregard for the safety of Americans," he says, "and all the protections that science-based safeguards can bring about.”