FL’s first chief science officer talks about the job — and the controversy

May 13, 2021 7:00 am

Buildings in Surfside, seen through an underwater camera in the ocean, illustrate the danger to Florida from rising oceans due to the climate crisis. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last week, I had coffee with a scientist named Tom Frazer. I was trying to nudge him to say some things about his former boss, but he was choosing his words verrrrry carefully.

We sat at a sidewalk table in downtown St. Petersburg, both of us fully vaccinated but still maintaining our social distance, because that’s what science says is safe. Frazer is all about following what science says.

Frazer is a tall, sandy-haired white man with a dark mustache and goatee. He looks more like the San Diego surfer dude he used to be than the academic he is now. He’s dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida but, before that job, he served as Florida’s very first chief science officer.

We met to discuss his tenure working for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had created the position Frazer held for — well, we’ll get to that complicated question in a minute.

Tom Frazer. Credit: USF

This was Frazer’s first long interview after leaving the job, but don’t get your hopes up. He spilled neither his coffee nor any secrets from inside the DeSantis administration. If you were hoping for juicy anecdotes about the governor rattling a pair of steel ball bearings in his hand while ranting about strawberries, I’m sorry.

Instead, we talked about what Frazer did and how people reacted to that. While Frazer consulted with several state agencies on everything from climate change to saving endangered corals, his primary job was chairing a task force charged with figuring out how to stop the repeated blooms of blue-green toxic algae in Lake Okeechobee.

The five-member panel was packed with people who knew as much or more about Florida’s water quality woes as Frazer himself.

“There’s a ton of expertise in the state of Florida and we drew upon that expertise,” he told me.

Their focus was on identifying sources of the nutrient pollution that fuels the algae and suggesting ways to stop them. The task force put out a “consensus statement” with recommendations. That statement then became the basis for a piece of legislation last year that lawmakers dubbed the Clean Waterways Act.

They did not put quotes around “clean” but they probably should have. The version that passed — which was supported by agriculture and development interests — turned out to be so watered down (ha ha, puns are funny!) that environmental groups urged the governor to veto the bill and start over. Instead, he signed it.

While legislators were still considering it, Frazer told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that the watered-down bill was “one of the most environmentally progressive pieces of legislation that we’ve seen in over a decade. As a scientist, that’s pretty rewarding to me.”

The environmental groups that opposed the bill were aghast. Frazer’s endorsement seemed at best disingenuous and at worst a deliberate attempt to mislead.

“His principal legacy is greenwashing the governor and Legislature while they refused to take even the minimum steps of fixing the algae problem,” said Ryan Smart of the Florida Springs Council.

Frazer now says he expressed himself poorly.

“In hindsight, I should have said ‘most comprehensive,’ instead of ‘most progressive,” he told me. “Sometimes you make the wrong word choice.”

Nevertheless, he does not apologize for backing such a badly flawed bill.

“The alternative was no action,” he insisted. In that there was a bill at all “there was progress, and there will continue to be progress.”

But will there? When a legislator filed a bill this year that would have actually implemented some of the task force recommendations, Frazer did not endorse it, despite pleas from environmental groups.

“That’s not my job,” he told me. He wasn’t hired to lobby for bills but to talk about science, he said, despite his advocacy for a bill the previous year.

Frazer wasn’t alone. No other scientists from the task force endorsed the bill that would have implemented their recommendations. And the governor didn’t exactly run to the top of the 22-story Capitol with a bullhorn to proclaim his support. As a result, the bill never went anywhere — and, once again, we’re facing blooms of toxic blue-green algae in Lake Okeechobee.

I asked Frazer if he felt frustrated about the compromises required to get the Legislature to pass any bill regarding water pollution when that might be seen as restricting agriculture and other industries.

“I try not to comment that,” he told me.

I feel like that non-answer was kind of an answer, don’t you?

Shhh, don’t talk about it

Because Frazer was so reticent, let me tell you a story involving him that I think encapsulates a lot of what’s been going since DeSantis took office in January 2019.

As a candidate, DeSantis promised to create the posts of chief science officer and chief resilience officer. One would advise state agencies on the proper scientific approach to environmental problems. The other would oversee the state’s efforts to adapt to climate change — a subject that former Gov. Rick Scott always treated as if someone had just suggested setting fire to his Navy cap.

In April 2019, DeSantis announced he was appointing Frazer “to coordinate and prioritize scientific data, research, monitoring, and analysis needs to ensure alignment with current and emerging environmental concerns most pressing to Floridians.” Frazer would continue to hold his $176,775-a-year position at the University of Florida while also occupying the newly created $148,000-a-year science officer post.

Then, in August 2019, DeSantis named Julia Nesheiwat as the chief resilience officer. Unlike Frazer, who holds a Ph.D. in biological sciences, Nesheiwat had zero background in the subject she would oversee.

Nevertheless, Nesheiwat traveled the state interviewing local officials and wrote a report about what she found. In February 2020 she quit, just six months after she started, to take a job in national security.

Despite requests from the press, the governor’s office refused to make her report public until April 2020. I don’t think the reason for the delay was because they were embarrassed at how complimentary she’d been.

On the contrary, Nesheiwat wrote that Florida’s climate efforts were disjointed, local governments were feeling overwhelmed trying to deal with it on their own, and the state needed to take the lead.

Did DeSantis immediately leap to appoint a successor who would take the report and run with it? He did not. Instead, DEP secretary Noah Valenstein would fill in. More than a year later, Valenstein remains the fill-in resiliency officer, meaning no one is working on the issue full-time — if at all.

And what about the chief science officer? Frazer’s last Blue-Green Algae Task Force meeting adjourned in November, with no further meetings scheduled. What was he doing to earn that big salary?

Rumors began flying even before that, in August 2020, that Frazer had followed Nesheiwat out the door. He had just landed the USF job and was also chairing the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, so the idea that he was still working that third job seemed improbable. I tried to track down what was going on, but nobody would confirm anything.

Months passed. Then, on March 12, DeSantis’ office announced that Frazer had accepted an appointment to the state’s Environmental Regulatory Commission, noting that he had “previously … served as the state of Florida’s first chief science officer.” The past tense strongly indicated that he’d quit as science officer — but still there was no announcement.

Cris Costello, a longtime organizer with the Sierra Club in Florida, says she called half a dozen state officials trying to find out if Frazer was still the science officer but couldn’t get a straight answer.

“I couldn’t even get them to tell me if he was still an employee of the state,” she said.

At last, on March 30, “at a press conference … praising an Everglades restoration project, Gov. Ron DeSantis made an unrelated surprise announcement: Florida’s first-ever chief science officer, Thomas K. ‘Tom’ Frazer, had left the post,” the Florida Phoenix reported.

“How long the post had been vacant was unclear. DeSantis said only that Frazer had gone to work as a professor and dean at the University of South Florida, and that the new chief science officer is Mark Rains, which also was a surprise at the news conference. Rains, too, is a professor at USF.”

During our coffee confab, I asked Frazer exactly when he left the job of chief science officer, which was under the DEP. He replied, “I’d rather let the agency answer that.”

But the agency never would. After I badgered him about it, Frazer told me his official last day as chief science officer was March 12. When he took the USF post, he said, he’d worked with DEP officials “to transition out of that job,” staying on until he’d been replaced.

So why wouldn’t the DeSantis administration just tell the public that? Why treat Frazer’s departure the way the members of Fight Club treated talking about Fight Club?

For the same reason, I think, that the DeSantis administration sat on Nesheiwat’s report for months. There’s a general arrogance toward the people they’re supposed to serve, a sense that the voters don’t deserve to know how their money is being spent and a hostility toward reporters who dare to ask about such things.

This, after all, is the governor who boasted about opening bars, restaurants, and schools despite the pandemic while keeping the Governor’s Mansion closed to the public — even though it’s owned by the taxpayers.

I checked my impression with Steve Bousquet, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist who’s been covering Tallahassee for three decades. He told me that DeSantis is the most secretive of the six governors he’s covered.

“He conceals his daily schedule and he’s openly hostile to the media … because it plays well with the base,” Bousquet said. He added that DeSantis is the only governor he’s ever seen refuse to take questions at a press conference.

Perhaps one reason for the secrecy: DeSantis seems to sing a different tune in private from what he says in public. The governor who touted science and climate resilience for Florida apparently doesn’t really think those things are important.

Last December, Politico got hold of a tape of a speech he made behind closed doors to a pro-development business group, Associated Industries of Florida. In the speech, he scoffed at science and predicted the Biden administration would squander its political capital pursuing “crazy stuff” — including climate change, which he said was not a major issue.

It sure is a major issue here in Florida, though — a state that’s flatter than Kansas and surrounded on three sides by rising seas.

Growing state, growing pollution problems

Frazer’s departure has left environmental activists disappointed about what he was able to accomplish.

Good ideas came out of the task force he led, “but many of us were frustrated about the lack of follow-through,” said Eve Samples, executive director of the Friends of the Everglades.

She plans to watch his successor carefully: “If he’s hamstrung, then we’ll know that this position was designed to be hamstrung.”.

Frazer, as we drank our coffee, said he never felt constrained — but he also recognized that scientific solutions may not be acceptable to politicians.

“I always felt free to share the science,” he said. “I realize that all decisions, all policies, are not developed entirely based on science.”

As we talked, he said something that struck me as the one of the best explanations I’d heard about why Florida’s water pollution and toxic algae problems have become so dire lately: Uncontrolled development that overwhelms sewer and wastewater systems built decades before.

“Florida continues to increase its population size,” Frazer said. “With that come changes. We have to be able to plan accordingly for that growth. Otherwise, we’ll never get ahead of the problem.”

Gee, if only some scientist could convince the governor to do something about that.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.