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Mixed result for Pundit to be confirmed USDA science chief

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nearly two dozen of the nation’s top farm groups have come out in support for the White House nomination of a non-scientist to the top science post at the USDA, while a coalition of 54 farming, food and consumer organizations are urging the Senate to oppose the appointment of Sam Clovis as the agency’s Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics.

Clovis, a former Iowa college professor and conservative radio host, has received support from 22 industry groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFB) and the National Corn Growers Assoc. (NCGA), which have sent a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee leaders urging support.

The letter, sent to Sens. Pat Roberts, (R-Kan.) committee chair, and Debbie Stabenow, (D-Mich.) ranking member, calls for a swift confirmation process. A committee spokesperson said no confirmation hearing date has been set, as they are still waiting for Clovis’ paperwork.

“As you know, we are strong proponents of our premier agriculture research and education system in this country,” the letter said. “It is the backbone for the productivity on our farms and ranches across the country. We believe Dr. Clovis shares this passion and will work with you.

“Some have suggested that Dr. Clovis is not qualified for this position due to his lack of hands-on-science and research experience,” the letter added. “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.”

The letter was signed by the American Soybean Assoc., National Barley Growers Assoc., National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc., National Cotton Council, the NCGA, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, National Grange, National Milk Producers Federation, National Pork Producers Council, National Potato Council, National Sorghum Producers, National Sunflower Assoc., Southern Peanut Farmers Federation, Southwest Council of Agri-Business, the AFB, United Egg Producers, USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, U.S. Apple Assoc., USA Rice Federation, U.S. Canola Assoc., U.S. Dry Bean Assoc. and the Western Growers Assoc.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “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. He looks at every problem with a critical eye.”

The nomination of Clovis has drawn close scrutiny for a science post that ranks among “the most critical” science and technology positions in the federal government, as cited in a 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

According to an analysis by the Washington Post, Clovis is only the 11th nominee to be named to fill 45 of the top Senate-confirmed science jobs across the federal government in this administration. Clovis’ presumptive USDA $3 billion portfolio oversees the critical Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service, the National Agricultural Statistics Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

As the under secretary, the post also serves as the USDA’s chief scientist, which according to the 2008 farm bill specifies that appointees to the post should be selected “from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education and economics.”

Clovis’ résumé shows he holds a B.S. in political science from the Air Force Academy, served 25 years in the Air Force including time as a fighter pilot and holds an MBA and a doctorate in public administration. He also taught economics and business at Morningside College, a small liberal arts school in Sioux City, Iowa.

Since his nomination in July, opposition to Clovis has been growing steadily. Several media outlets have reported on a controversial 2014 interview he gave with Iowa Public Radio, when he said he was “extremely skeptical” about climate change.

He told listeners “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.”

Late last month a diverse coalition of 54 farming, food, consumer and environmental organizations and others called on the Senate to reject Clovis, calling his nomination “a direct attack on science and our food and farm system.”

In a letter to senators opposing the nomination, the groups – including Friends of the Earth, ActionAid USA, the National Family Farm Coalition, Patagonia and the Sierra Club – said he “lacks the formal training in the hard sciences and expertise in food and agriculture policy” to serve in the USDA post.

“Clovis’ nomination is an affront to America’s farmers and citizens who deserve a healthy resilient food system,” said Kendra Klein, staff scientist at Friends of the Earth.

Additionally, the Food Policy Action (FPA) organization has a launched an online petition calling on the Senate to block the nomination. The petition is being distributed to FPA’s nationwide network of activists, advocates, farmers, chefs and restaurateurs.

“Sam Clovis has no business being nominated, let alone voted on, as a USDA’s chief scientists,” the petition states. “His complete lack of science experience and disturbing views make him wholly unqualified and unfit for this critically important position at USDA. Clovis’ only connection to food and agriculture seems to be that he grew up in Iowa.”