Opinion: Non-scientist tapped for USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics; ag trade groups approve

Print More

Dave Dickey

At one time, not so many years ago, U.S. politics and patronage went together like peas and carrots.

In fact, certain communities (hello Chicago!) fine-tuned quid pro quo political favors for jobs into an art form.  The practice was so rampant that it eventually caught the attention of the U.S Supreme Court. In 1990 the high court tried to pump the breaks.

In the case Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, the high court ruled the constitution prevented the use of partisan political considerations to hire, promote, or transfer most public employees on local, state and federal levels.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said the decision was consistent with earlier rulings which prevented the firing of low level public employees based on party affiliation.

Unfortunately, Brennan’s ruling failed to address if patronage was appropriate for federal cabinet level positions.

On first blush, the exclusion is logical.  After all a president should be able to pick whomever they wish to serve in their cabinet and allow the U.S Senate advice and consent chips fall where they may.

Which brings us to the nomination of Samuel Clovis, a former college professor and talk radio host, to the post of USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics.

The job demands the appointee – no, requires under the 2008 Farm Bill– to have a science background in order to oversee USDA’s extensive scientific research mission as well as science based National Agricultural Statistics Services and to a lesser extent the Economic Research Service.

Specifically the law says:

“The Under Secretary 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.”

The person in charge has to have the science chops to direct everything from nutrition to a food-born pathogen outbreak to the potential short term and long term impacts of climate change.  Needing a degree in a scientific field (or multiple degrees) like food nutrition, medicine, biochemistry or ecosystem ecology is a no brainier.

USDA’s previous Chief Scientist from 2010 to this past January was Doctor Catherine Woteki.  Yes, there was controversy during her appointment over her employment as Global Director of Scientific Affairs for Mars, Inc., but few questioned her scientific where-with-all.

So with the simple choice before him – pick a scientist or someone else – the POTUS went with the latter.

Clovis has no, none, zero, zippo scientific degrees.  Let that sink in a moment.  Clovis has a B.S. in political science, an MBA degree and a doctorate in public administration.

And as USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue adds: oh yeah, Clovis has the president’s ear:

“Dr. Clovis was one of the first people through the door at USDA in January and has become a trusted advisor and steady hand as we continue to work for the people of agriculture.”

I’m sorry Sonny.  Handing out the Chief Scientist appointment because someone is a good guy/gal with some perceived access to the White House doesn’t fly.

To make matters worse, various agricultural trade organizations are getting behind the Clovis nomination.  The groups – whose members routinely interact with Big Ag – sent a letter to the Senate acknowledging Clovis does not have a science background, but suggesting underlings can pick up the slack:

“Some have suggested that Dr. Clovis is not qualified for this position due to his lack of hands-on science and research experience. We do not share this point of view. The U.S. Department of Agriculture already employs some of the finest and most dedicated scientists in the world. They do not need a peer. They need someone to champion their work before the administration, the Congress, and all consumers around the world.

“Dr. Clovis is dedicated to preserving and improving this remarkable system. Most importantly, he is dedicated to making sure that the world’s best-available science is being used by all government agencies to determine appropriate regulatory and policy decisions.”


Well ag trade, I wouldn’t get too excited just because a nominee might have some White House access in a Trump Administration.  Do the names Michael Flynn, Sean Spicer, Patrick Kennedy, James Comey, Reince Priebus, Anthony Scaramucci , or Sally Yates ring any bells?

In getting behind Clovis, agricultural trade organizations are taking a short-term view with long-term implications.

Perdue says that Clovis “looks at every problem with a critical eye relying on sound science and data.”

Clovis is also on record as a climate change denier who as late as three years ago told Iowa Public Radio that he was “extremely skeptical” about climate change.

Senate republicans have been publicly unfazed by Clovis’ lack of scientific acumen.

If there is to be a dust up, it appears to be over … wait for it … crop insurance which have little to do with the duties of Chief Scientist.  Clovis is on record as saying that federal spending for crop insurance was unconstitutional.  Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts says that’s a bridge too far.

I would hope that U.S. Senators, which after all approved the farm bill, would honor the law they wrote.  If not and Clovis gets the post,  we might as well just call it what it is – patronage.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.