Letter from Langdon: USDA Science Nominee Doesn’t Have a Beaker’s Worth of Experience

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize Sam Clovis’ only credential to serve as the USDA’s head of research is loyalty to Donald Trump.

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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.

That’s what the US Code says about the criteria for appointment to be Undersecretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics.

President Trump’s nominee to fill the position, Sam Clovis, is none of the above.

Clovis graduated from the Air Force Academy. He was peace-time commander of a fighter squadron, and eventually he became a conservative talk show host. But nothing much in his background indicates experience with the disciplines of factual natural sciences or even much social science. He has a political science degree, a business administration degree, and a public administration degree. There’s nothing “distinguished” or “significant” in his training or experience in research, education, and economics. He has, however, been supportive of President Trump, who installed him in a lesser position of senior White House advisor at USDA earlier in this Administration.

Speaking as a farmer, I understand that the majority of my colleagues are politically conservative Trump supporters, if not directly, then simply by being Republicans.

Speaking as a citizen of the United States, I wonder why loyalty to a sitting president has suddenly taken precedence over real qualifications and loyalty to America and all Americans.

Farmers work in the grittiest, sometimes most manure, nutrient-laden ways possible. But all of it has some basis in science.  There is an indisputable truth to what we do right down to spreading plant-feeding chicken litter on a field. We rely on science to show us the way because USDA researchers with impeccable credentials in science (climate, agronomy, conservation, chemistry, genetics, math, and economics) have always figured out the truth and shared it with us.

We can either live by the truth or die from ignorance.

Americans have always chosen life.

USDA-sponsored research through our universities not only delivers information to the people, it delivers knowledge directly to students in those universities when research scientists teach students but involve them in their work.

It’s not just about discovery.  Mentoring is a building block of the real future.

Maybe Sam Clovis can oversee a 50-state operation like that. Maybe he understands how important reality is to a farmer whose crops are threatened by drought or economic challenges, or whose flocks or herds are afflicted by disease. Maybe Sam gets it completely and will see to it that scientific positions at USDA are filled by people with scientists’ credentials.

Or maybe he will appoint people to those posts whose primary qualification is strict ideology regardless of accepted scientific findings.

The reason the ideological Mr. Clovis does not seem suited to the job he’s been designated to fill is because scientists can be extremely sticky about proof. Real numbers, statistics, records—that aren’t constructed to prove a political point but that are followed like a trail to an inevitable exactitude.

That is knowledge farmers, all of us, can use. Alive and well in U.S. politics, ideology has its place, but not in honest research. Figures don’t lie, and half-truths and innuendo don’t figure.

They never have.

There are surely Republican-leaning scientists who can maintain veracity and effectiveness of science while pleasing the political appointer—right up to the point of bending actuality around a campaign promise. At some point, rhetoric should be recognized for what it is while the real earth and its science is recognized for what it is. Billions of souls are at stake. Food. Shelter. Clothing. So much of it comes through agriculture and science. You cannot create a corn crop with a press release or save a baby from starving via outrageous Tweets. You can, however, create a calf through cloning or transfer a fish gene into a tomato.

But it takes science.

Some things are palpable. They exist or they do not. They cannot be created in a moment of free-wheeling unsubstantiated banter. It takes not months but years to establish a food system.

Even the simple act of cracking a molecule into gasoline or motor oil or plastic or plant feeding nitrogen—or cotton competing polyester— is an act of science that cannot be accomplished through talk or wishful thinking or an unsubstantiated claim during a heated debate.

Chemistry, climate, microbiology, photosynthesis and so much more is all cold, hard fact. But before that they were a quest by scientists who found them to be real.

Some of us complain when yet another Wall Street banker heads the U.S. Treasury. But he understands money. And we wonder if choosing a general instead of a civilian to oversee the Department of Defense is a good choice. But he understands the military and war. We may question the record and the credibility of the attorney chosen to head Department of Justice, but he knows the law.

The Secretary of Agriculture surely knows his job.

That’s why, whether we like him or not, the Undersecretary of Agricultural Research, Education, and Economics ought to know those subject areas and have a record to prove it.

Richard Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. He is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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