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  1. Environment

Florida's new chief science officer started off as a surfer dude

University of Florida professor Thomas Frazer is the state’s first-ever Chief Science Officer. He started out as just another surfer.
Published Apr. 26

Florida's new chief science officer didn't start out as a scientist. Instead he was a surfer dude.

Thomas Frazer, named to the post created by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, was born and raised in the quintessential surf city of San Diego. When he was 8, he bought his first board — a Lightning Bolt — and spent as much time riding the waves as he could.

That's what led him to become an expert on water pollution.

"It seemed like I was on the water every day," he told an interviewer in 2016. "When you are a surfer, you learn about water quality at an early age. You know that when you get an earache after surfing, that it is probably because of runoff."

Frazer, 54, is the director of the University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment and has a Ph.D. in biological science from the University of California. He will continue to hold that $176,775-a-year position while also occupying the $148,000-a-year science officer post. Experts say it appears to be the first such state-level position in the nation.

Despite repeated requests from the Tampa Bay Times, state Department of Environmental Protection officials declined to make Frazer available for an in-depth interview.

However, in brief comments he made the day DeSantis named him to the job, Frazer discussed his priorities. At this point, they do not include tackling rising sea levels, protecting the state's aquifer-saving wetlands, or finding new habitat for the Florida panther and other endangered species.

"It's pretty clear water and water quality-related issues are on the top of the list," Frazer told the Palm Beach Post. "In the short term, blue-green algae is a big issue and a lot of my time will be focused on that."

DeSantis selected Frazer from a roster of 34 applicants, including Stephen Davis of Miami, the senior ecologist with the Everglades Foundation; Ann Redmond of Orlando, who as a state employee in the 1990s wrote Florida's rules on wetland preservation and mitigation; and Paul Julian of Lehigh Acres, the lead scientist on Everglades restoration at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

One application was from a climate scientist in Hawaii, another from an environmental science professor at Western Kentucky University, a third from a Montana plant science expert.

In applying for the job, Frazer played up not only his scientific background, but also his experience as an administrator at the university. He has served since 2012 as director of the School of Natural Resources and Environment. His cover letter also took a big-picture approach that most of the other applicants failed to employ.

"My interest in this job stems, in large part, from a deep-rooted concern for sustainable interactions between humans and the environment in which they live," he wrote.

A review of records shows Frazer has not donated money to any political campaigns and the only criminal complaint against him is a traffic citation. As for his reputation as a scientist: One of Frazer's studies on water pollution has been cited as authoritative by both sides in the ongoing dispute between the fertilizer industry and environmental advocates who want to limit fertilizer use during the rainy summer months.

Other scientists speak highly of him. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries regional administrator Roy Crabtree, who holds a doctorate in marine science from the College of William and Mary, calls Frazer "a bright guy" and "very thoughtful. He's fair-minded and objective, and looks at all sides of an issue."

Cynthia Barnett, the environmental fellow in residence at the University of Florida's Bob Graham Center for Public Service, recalls seeing Frazer "lead a meeting where he made sure each woman in the room was heard, in so doing running out of time to call on the university president. I'm not sure if he was ensuring a voice for the women or the science, but I suspect it was both."

Sierra Club organizer Cris Costello said her organization "has high hopes for the new chief science officer. Contributors to climate change and the toxic algae crisis must be immediately taken on. The science is clear on both. ... Dr. Frazer will be an asset to the state if he acts immediately and forcefully to promote the strict regulation of the pollution that is threatening life as we used to know it in Florida. We have no time to lose."

Costello's point is one others have brought up: While Frazer may be a good choice, the big question is whether he will be allowed to do the job as it's described. As Everglades activist Peter Rauch put it in an online forum posting, they want to be sure the chief science officer job "will not be twisted into just one more political path to manipulation of agencies, of the scientists and their work products."

Frazer is due to start as chief science officer — technically his third job, after teaching at UF and chairing the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Council — next month.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com . Follow @craigtimes.

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