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Nonscientist likely to be appointed to top USDA research spot


With the amount of biotechnology and precision machinery used by today’s farmers, it’s no wonder that we take so much pride in the science behind the ag industry. It’s given us seed genetics, crop protection, on-site data management, GPS-guided planting, and soil monitoring, among dozens of other things. While the private sector drives the bulk of our innovation in ag, we expect the USDA to do its due diligence, too.

So how concerned should we be that President Donald Trump wants to select someone without a hard-science background to lead the agency’s research wing?

The man in question is Sam Clovis, who is currently the USDA’s senior advisor to the White House. Surely, he has the president’s trust, or else we wouldn’t even be talking about him right now.

In this piece from ProPublica, Clovis is at the head of the pack for the undersecretary job, which according to the 2008 Farm Bill, should be chosen “from among distinguished scientists with specialized or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” Clovis’ background is more along the lines of business and policy, not research. In fact, he seems to have little, if any, academic science experience.

Clovis majored in political science in college and studied business administration in graduate school. It doesn’t appear that he has ever published a scientific paper. For the agricultural industry and for the USDA, scientific integrity is paramount. Onlookers should ask themselves whether they believe Clovis will be able to adequately guide ag research (and, in a broader sense, climate and nutritional research), and sufficiently assess whether that research is being designed and implemented appropriately.

This is not a knock against what are surely many admirable and important talents that Clovis may have in other fields, but rather this is a heads up that the role of Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics needs to be watched closely to make sure that its reliability and validity stays intact.

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