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Trump's Pick For Chief Scientist At Department Of Agriculture Is Not A Scientist


More than eight months into the Trump administration, many federal agencies are still missing key personnel. As those positions slowly get filled, one lower-level pick at the Department of Agriculture is stirring up controversy. Amy Mayer of Iowa Public Radio reports on the nominee to be the agency's chief scientist.


AMY MAYER, BYLINE: At USDA, Sam Clovis would oversee the agency's $3 billion research budget which includes work on climate change. During an interview with Iowa Public Radio in 2014 when he was running for Senate, Clovis wasn't shy about his skepticism of the human causes of climate change.


SAM CLOVIS: I have looked at the science, and I have enough of a science background to know when I'm being boofed. And I think a lot of what we see is junk science.

MAYER: The Air Force veteran is probably best known for hosting a conservative talk show. Clovis went on to run the Trump campaign in Iowa and has been the White House liaison at USDA since the election. But he's not a scientist. In fact, his Ph.D. is in public administration.

BRENDA BRINK: Frankly, I'm appalled...

MAYER: Brenda Brink is a member of the Iowa Farmers Union.

BRINK: ...Because he's not made any bones about being a scientist, and yet he's been appointed to this position where he's elevated to the level of a scientist.

MAYER: And that's not all that's controversial about Clovis. He used to run a blog where he wrote racially charged posts and once related being gay with pedophilia. Clovis also often invokes his Catholic faith, as he did in this campaign ad.


CLOVIS: Being a Republican means that you understand the law, you abide by the law and God's law informs the rest of it.

MAYER: Ricardo Salvador is the director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says being close to the president doesn't qualify Clovis for this USDA job.

RICARDO SALVADOR: If he makes decisions on the basis of loyalty to the new president or on political ideology, we're afraid that this is just going to be very noxious to responsible, science-based decision-making.

MAYER: One of USDA's important programs for farmers is federally subsidized crop insurance. While Clovis wouldn't oversee that program, he upset many farmers by questioning its value during his Senate campaign.


CLOVIS: Most of the Iowa farmers I talked to would just as soon have the government out of their lives, and that includes insurance programs.

MAYER: Clovis does have powerful allies. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, has equated his degree in public administration to a degree in economics and says that background does qualify Clovis for the job.

CHUCK GRASSLEY: There's a very close relationship between science and the decisions that the government makes in science and the impact upon the economy.

MAYER: But the top Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee vows to put up a fight. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow says the law specifically requires that nominees be chosen from, quote, "among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education or economics."

DEBBIE STABENOW: In my judgment, I don't see how in the world he meets the requirements of the law. And so I think this is certainly something we're exploring.

MAYER: She says Clovis may need a special waiver to get the job, and that waiver would need 60 votes from the full Senate, not just the simple majority needed for confirmation. Stabenow says that could make it difficult to confirm him.

STABENOW: We would have to see. But certainly, that's a much higher threshold for him to have to reach.

MAYER: So far, Clovis' confirmation hearing hasn't been scheduled. For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.