Questions Over USDA Post

An Undersecretary Candidate Leads to Issues Over Qualifications

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Sam Clovis, candidate for a position in the USDA. (Courtesy USDA)

OMAHA (DTN) -- A political controversy at USDA has flared up after reports surfaced over the weekend that a USDA liaison to the White House could be nominated to be the department's undersecretary for research, education and economics.

There has been a lot of speculation in recent days about nominations for several major posts at USDA. DTN's Washington Insider cited some potential deputy and undersecretary candidates in the morning column:…

The Washington Post and the news organization ProPublica first reported over the weekend that Sam Clovis could be nominated as the undersecretary for research, education and economics, a post considered to be USDA's top scientist.

Clovis was a national co-chair for President Donald Trump's campaign last year and has been serving as a USDA adviser since the president was sworn-in in January.

The suggestion that Clovis could take over as the USDA head of research, education and economics led to some surprise and criticism. Ricardo Salvador, the director of food and environment at the Union of Concerned Scientists, strongly criticized the possible nomination, especially because Clovis has rejected climate science in past comments.

"American consumers and farmers deserve a nominee who has demonstrated ability to make evidence-based decisions to ensure department policies are both sustainable and successful," Salvador said. "The chief scientist position should be held by someone who understands and respects the role of science at the USDA, especially given their role in overseeing scientific integrity across the department."

A USDA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by DTN about the possible nomination. DTN also asked USDA's press office for an interview or comment from Clovis.

Clovis is a retired Air Force colonel who later got a doctorate in public education at the University of Alabama. He was a professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and active in conservative politics as a talk-show host when he chose to run for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in Iowa in 2014. He lost to now-Sen. Joni Ernst. Clovis then became an early adviser to Trump's campaign.

After the election, Clovis quickly became part of the Trump transition team and became part of the USDA beachhead between inauguration and the late-April confirmation of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Clovis told RadioIowa in January, "I've been personally involved over the last several weeks of making sure the policy implementation that we are going to see from day one -- starting this afternoon forward -- I will say without qualification it is the most conservative agenda I have seen come from a Republican presidency in a long time. It may be more conservative than Ronald Reagan's was." (…)

Gale Buchanan, retired dean of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, served as undersecretary for research, education and economics from 2006-2008 under President George W. Bush. A weed scientist by education, Buchanan also is author of the 2016 book, "Feeding the World, Agricultural Research in the Twenty-First Century." Buchanan said a scientific background has always been a standard for the person holding that undersecretary spot.

"As far back as I can remember, the people who have held that position had terminal degrees in agricultural sciences," Buchanan told DTN on Monday. "So someone who is not an agricultural scientist, I would be very curious as to why such an appointment would be made."

Buchanan added that the most recent undersecretary in the position, Catherine Woteki, had such "impressive credentials" and he wrote Woteki a letter to praise her work even though Buchanan noted he isn't a Democrat. Woteki had been a dean of agriculture at Iowa State University before working for Mars Inc. as global director of scientific affairs.

"I was under the impression that for undersecretary of REE (research, education and economics) that one of the requirements was that you had to have a PhD in one of the agricultural sciences," Buchanan told DTN. "I was under the impression that was one of the few positions that required a terminal degree."

As DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom reported, a provision in the 2008 farm bill might make it difficult for Clovis to be nominated for the position. The conference report specifies that the undersecretary for research, education and economics must "have specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics. The undersecretary is designated as the chief scientist of the Department and is tasked with the coordination of the research, education and extension activities of the Department." (…)

The position has a broad portfolio, overseeing USDA's Agricultural Research Service, National Institute for Food and Agriculture, Economic Research Service, National Agricultural Statistics Service, the National Agricultural Library and the National Arboretum. The undersecretary administers a broad array of grants and also sits on several national and international scientific panels for USDA. (…)

Any candidate for the post would also have to go through the Senate confirmation process.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton