The Trump administration is planning to nominate Sam Clovis — the Department of Agriculture’s senior White House adviser — as head of USDA’s Research, Education and Economics division, according to individuals briefed on the decision. The move would mark a break with recent Republican and Democratic administrations alike, which have previously reserved the high-level position for scientists with expertise in agricultural research.
Clovis — a former economics professor and talk radio host in Iowa who served as one of the Trump campaign’s first policy advisers — has bachelor’s degrees in political science and government, a master’s in business administration and a doctoral degree in public administration, according to his LinkedIn page. In other public biographies he’s emphasized his 25-year stint in the Air Force and expertise in national security and foreign policy.
As Agriculture’s White House senior adviser, Clovis has played a key role in the department since President Trump took office. He helped run USDA during the time before Secretary Sonny Perdue took office, and he signed off on directives such as one employees received just after Inauguration Day that instructed them to clear any public communications in advance with the secretary’s office.
The job he’s now under consideration for, Agriculture’s undersecretary of research, education and economics, ranks as a top-level science position that oversees the department’s extensive scientific mission. The department’s chief scientist also oversees Agriculture’s economic bureaus, including the Natural Agricultural Statistics Service and the Economic Research Service. Clovis’s expertise appears most closely related to these bureaus.
The possible appointment of Clovis was first suggested Friday by Agri-Pulse.
An Agriculture spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday. Reached by phone, Clovis said, “I can’t speak to the press.”
Congress established the post in the 1994 Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act, and during the past two presidential administrations, it has been occupied by scientists and public health professionals. The position’s description was updated in the 2008 farm bill to clarify that the undersecretary will also hold the title of the department’s chief scientist, and that the position “shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.”
In 2001, then-President George W. Bush appointed to the post Joseph Jen, a comparative biochemistry PhD who had previously headed the University of Georgia’s Division of Food Science and Technology and served as the dean of the College of Agriculture at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Bush later nominated Gale Buchanan, a plant physiologist, to the post in 2006.
When Barack Obama took office he tapped Rajiv Shah, who holds both a medical degree and a master of science in health economics from the University of Pennsylvania, for the post.
Catherine Woteki, who earned her doctorate from Virginia Tech and held senior positions at USDA, Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology, served as Agriculture’s chief scientist from Sept. 16, 2010 until Jan. 20, 2017. A food nutrition expert, Woteki served as Iowa State University’s dean of agriculture for five years between Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s time in office.
The current acting undersecretary, Ann Bartuska, is described as an ecosystem ecologist who’s served on multiple scientific councils and panels, including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, criticized the prospect of Clovis’s selection.
“If the president goes forward with this nomination, it’ll be yet another example of blatant dismissal of the value of scientific expertise among his administration appointees,” Salvador said in a statement. “Continuing to choose politics over science will give farmers and consumers little confidence that the administration has their interests at heart.”
Woteki said in an interview with ProPublica on Friday that since the position serves as the agency’s chief scientist, the occupant “should be a person who evaluates the scientific body of evidence and moves appropriately from there.”
In the past, Clovis has challenged the scientific consensus that human activity is the primary driver of climate change over the last 50 years. In a 2014 interview with Iowa Public Radio, Clovis suggested that “a lot of the science is junk science. It’s not proven; I don’t think there’s any substantive information available to me that doesn’t raise as many questions as it does answers. So I’m a skeptic.”
In the same radio interview, Clovis said, “I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed,” though he did not detail any past research experience involving the hard sciences.
As the undersecretary, issues related to climate change would fall under Clovis’s purview. A 2010 Agriculture Department report, “A Roadmap for USDA Science,” states that “agricultural and forestry ecosystems are climate dependent and could be affected in myriad ways by a changing climate” and suggests that the agency “anticipate and accommodate climate change effects such that agriculture, forestry, and U.S. producers realize net benefits.”
While Clovis does not appear to have conducted extensive research in the hard sciences, he is a veteran Republican Party activist who joined Trump’s presidential campaign. In addition to working as a talk radio host, he served as a professor of economics at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2014.
During that Senate run, Clovis described his credentials for running in an Iowa Public Radio interview: “25 years in the military, and the various jobs and opportunities I had while serving the nation, my experience as a business man, and my academic preparation … my experience in a variety of other fields, including homeland security, foreign policy, national security policy, creating jobs and all those things.”
In 2015, Clovis took a leave of absence from his position at Morningside College to join the Trump campaign as a chief policy adviser.
In this position, he inspired controversy among the college’s administration with his role in developing a Trump campaign proposal that would ban Muslims from entering the United States, a university spokesman told the outlet Iowa Starting Line.
“This is not the Sam Clovis that we knew when he was here. Sam was a staunch defender of the Constitution and a strong advocate for religious freedom,” said university spokesman Rick Wollman. “If he played a role in drafting or advising the Trump campaign on this issue, we will be outraged and extremely disappointed in Dr. Clovis.”
Chris Mooney contributed to this report.