Announcing STEM in Style: A Celebration of Women in STEM -- Click here to learn more!

On July 21st, the Trump Administration nominated former campaign co-chair and talk-radio host Sam Clovis to the position of Undersecretary of Research, Education, and Economics (REE) at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This undersecretary position oversees the USDA’s scientific mission, and functions as the agency’s chief scientist. Most disturbingly, Clovis is not a scientist, holding a doctorate in public administration, and according to ProPublica, has never taken a graduate level science course.

What does the USDA’s chief scientist oversee?

The USDA’s chief scientist oversees the entire scientific mission of the USDA:

  1. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a research agency comprised of over 8,000 employees, including 2,500 scientists, spread over 100 locations. The ARS research covers over 1,200 research projects, focused on:
    •  Nutrition, Food Safety, and Food Quality
    • Animal Production and Protection
    • Natural Resources and Sustainable Agricultural Systems
    • Crop Production and Protection
  2. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the USDA’s main research funding agency. This institution is tasked with advancing knowledge of agriculture, the environment, and human well-being through funding of research and education.
  3. The Economic Research Service, focused on producing economic and social science data related to food, agriculture, and rural development. These data are to be used to guide public policy decisions.
  4. The National Agricultural Statistics Service, a statistics agency devoted to providing accurate and useful numbers to farmers. These data cover a wide range of aspects in agriculture, including production of crops, prices paid, farm wages, finances, chemical usage, and demographics of US farmers.

What would Clovis be overseeing at the USDA?

The USDA has an important mission – ensuring the security of the American food supply. In the coming years, climate change is expected to greatly impact weather patterns across the US, including here in Wisconsin, having a major impact on agricultural yields. The USDA’s research mission during this time will need to focus on understanding how these changes will impact agriculture and how any negative changes can be counteracted. Climate change is expected to produce more extreme weather events, greater temperature swings, and longer droughts.

In addition to climate change, it is also important for the USDA to consider the impacts of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the security of the food supply. GMOs offer substantial benefits in terms of being tailored to match the challenges we face in food production, at the cost of encouraging monoculturing of crops. Monoculturing, or the use of a single strain of plants to supply most of a certain food need, puts the food supply at risk of being wiped out by a single disease. This was a major factor in the Irish Potato Famine, in which the single strain of potato being grown was wiped out by a fungal infection.

Why is it a bad thing if a talk-radio host takes this job?

The undersecretary of the REE functions as the chief scientist of the USDA, setting funding and research priorities of an agency that is both a major producer of research, and a major funder. In order to do this effectively, this person must be able to keep up with all of the latest agricultural research and data. This person needs to be able to take all of this information, anticipate what the upcoming needs of the farming community will be, and come up with a plan of what kinds of research the USDA can do, or fund that will help solve those problems. The chief scientist needs to be able to identify threats to the food supply, whether it’s climate change, the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, or bee colony collapse disorder. Being able to keep up with the firehose of new research and data, while being able to make meaningful decisions based on all the data is something that requires extensive scientific training, beyond the level of even most professional scientists, let alone someone without any scientific background. This is why the law (7 U.S.C. 6971), specifies that the people chosen for this job should be selected “…from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” This is a position with serious responsibilities, and should be held by experts, and not used as a political reward. Well-qualified people of all political stripes exist, and many of them reside here in the Midwest, where some of the nation’s top agricultural research centers are based.

The most disturbing part of Clovis’s nomination is that it follows a long trend of the Trump Administration nominating cabinet officials who lack scientific expertise for positions that should be held by scientists.  

Roles where non-scientists have been appointed:

  • Secretary of the Department of Energy –  Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, has a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science. He has also advocated during the 2012 Presidential election primaries for elimination of this department, and has noted after his appointment as secretary that he was unaware of what the Department of Energy (DOE) does. The DOE oversees research into advanced energy technologies, including solar, nuclear, and thermoelectric. It also oversees the maintenance of our nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal, as well as overseeing nuclear power generating stations.
  • Environmental Protection Agency –  Scott Pruitt, former Attorney General of Oklahoma, and also frequent filer of lawsuits against the agency, is a trained lawyer, with an undergraduate degree in Political Science. Scientists were concerned, as Pruitt has no scientific background, is a climate change denialist (claiming that carbon dioxide does not act as a greenhouse gas), and has been responsible for multiple lawsuits against the EPA during his time as OK attorney general. These concerns were definitely warranted, as the EPA under Pruitt has removed most of the academic scientists on its advisory committee, as well as many of its own internal research scientists.
  • Office of Science and Technology Policy – Unfilled. The head of this office is the chief science advisor to the President, working to keep the President informed about scientific concerns, new information, as well as new emerging technologies. President Trump has not appointed anyone for this position, and it has remained vacant since, with no interim advisor. Additionally, the science division of the office of science and technology policy is completely unstaffed.

The Trump administration is showing its dangerous lack of understanding of the importance of these scientific roles. By choosing individuals with no background in what these agencies work on to these positions, we are risking the forward progress of our nation, and our dominance as the world’s premier scientific nation. Further, well-qualified scientists exist in every political stripe, which means, for the Trump Administration, finding conservative scientists should not be an issue. Here in the Midwest, with our world-class agricultural programs, multiple USDA research laboratories, and agricultural heritage, great choices for Undersecretary of Research, Education, and Economics abound.

Written by John Uhrig for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *