A new report on bird flu preparedness from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) regrettably didn’t make any headlines. But there’s an important point within it that shouldn’t be ignored as debate plays out in Minnesota and other farm states over a likely Trump administration pick for a top-level position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA, which has broad responsibilities from rural economic development to trade, also plays a critical role in guarding the nation’s public health. Among its vital responsibilities: controlling diseases that can move from livestock to humans, such as bird flu, which can spread rapidly through poultry flocks and, sometimes, infect humans.
The GAO report highlighted improvements needed at the agency to protect against future bird flu epidemics. The report’s timing also underscores that the agency needs top-notch staff, particularly scientists, to carry out its important mission to protect livestock and crops from emerging threats. President Trump’s apparent pick for the agency’s top scientific role — an Iowan named Sam Clovis who lacks advanced science degrees — falls well short of being the ideal choice for the job.
That said, the dismissal of Clovis as merely a political hack by some naysayers isn’t merited, either. Upon closer examination, his education and wide-ranging experience — which include a master’s degree in business administration, a Ph.D. in public administration and stints at a well-known defense contractor — is more substantive than critics contend. If Clovis relies on the stellar scientific staff at USDA and limits his public pronouncements to relevant issues, he could perform acceptably as the agency’s undersecretary for research, education and economics.
Clovis, a retired Air Force colonel, is well-known in political circles in the state to the south. He has served as a business administration professor at Morningside College in northwestern Iowa and as a local conservative talk show host. He leveraged his involvement with Trump’s Iowa campaign into a senior advisory role with the administration. His climate change skepticism and controversial role in developing Trump’s immigration policy have earned him some notoriety.
The Washington Post recently reported that Clovis is now considered Trump’s “expected choice” for the USDA undersecretary role. Former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, who served from 1995 to 2001, is among those who have raised concerns. In an interview, Glickman said previous undersecretaries had deep expertise in agricultural science.
This expertise is crucial as the world grapples with feeding a growing population with fewer resources, Glickman said. Someone in Clovis’ position needs to advocate for smart research, more funding and forging public-private partnerships. To do that, he has to connect with the agency’s scientists and be able to “talk their language,” Glickman said.
Glickman raises fair concerns. But Clovis’ policy background, along with his academic and business experience, could be an asset as an administrator and in forging research partnerships. It’s also important to note that other respected agricultural voices are not raising objections. A representative for the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences said only that its leaders stand ready to work with Clovis. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association has not taken a position, and the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association has publicly supported Clovis’ appointment.
Clovis should be given the benefit of the doubt. But there’s heavy lifting ahead in his potential new role to earn the respect of agency staff and the public.