Florida’s first-ever chief science officer left, but when, and what did he do?

Pollution that fuels toxic algae blooms is contaminating Florida waterways. Here, palm trees along a southwest Florida canal cast shadows on thick plumes of green slime. Credit: Southwest Florida Water Management District, with aerial support provided by LightHawk.

At a press conference Tuesday morning 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.

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.

According to USF’s website, the university hired Frazer in June 2020 to become dean of the College of Marine Science, effective in August.

Since DeSantis announced his creation of the post of chief science officer in April 2019, the new CSO, Frazer, maintained a low profile, rarely issuing public statements or making public appearances.

As for Rains, a university spokesman told the Phoenix he will remain on the USF faculty and “return to his position at the conclusion of his tenure as chief science officer.” The USF spokesman, Adam Freeman, declined to say when Rains’ term as CSO officially started. The governor’s office did not respond to a request clarifying when Frazer left and when Rains started.

Observers began to speculate about Frazer’s status after DeSantis announced on March 12 of this year that he appointed Frazer to a part-time, unpaid position on the board of the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission. The announcement said Frazer had “served” as CSO but did not say when he stopped doing so.

The Sierra Club of Florida was disappointed to learn of Frazer’s departure, whenever that was.

It asked him in a group letter on March 17, just two weeks ago, to serve as “champion” of proposed legislation to implement recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force that was convened by Frazer. The task force was created and commissioned by DeSantis in 2019 to address water pollution causing toxic algae blooms fouling Florida waterways and causing health problems.

“We’re in the middle of a water quality crisis,” said Cris Costello, senior organizing manager with Sierra, expressing frustration that no one in the governor’s office is fighting to implement the measures the governor’s task force recommended, which would curb sources of water pollution fueling the algae blooms.

Likewise, Lindsay Cross, government relations director with Florida Conservation Voters, said it is disappointing that the governor’s first-ever chief science officer left after a short stint, as did the governor’s first-ever chief resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat, who departed after six months to take a post in the former Trump administration and has not been replaced.

“It signifies there may be challenges in the governor’s leadership on environmental issues,” Cross said.

Environmental groups say few recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force made their way into Senate Bill 712, the Clean Waterways Act of 2020, mostly because of pushback from polluters. Bills this year would mandate implementation of most of the recommendations.

The March 17 group letter, penned by officers of Sierra Club of Florida, the Florida Springs Council, and Waterkeepers Florida, was written to spur Frazer to champion the 2021 bills related to the task force he worked on.

But Frazer is no longer the chief science officer.

Costello said she tried to ascertain Frazer’s status through official state channels but received no information until Tuesday in an email that simply said he had “left the department.”

The Phoenix reached out to Frazer for comment and received a response by email via the USF spokesman. It commended Rains as well-respected and highly qualified, praised the work of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, and did not clear up when or why Frazer stopped being the state’s chief science officer.

“While serving as CSO, I had the privilege of working with the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, appointed by Governor DeSantis, to help develop and deliver a suite of recommendations that laid the foundation for the Clean Waterways Act.  [The act] addressed a number of important environmental issues including several provisions specifically related to nutrient reduction and water quality improvement,” Frazer wrote in the email.

The environmental groups insist the task force recommendations may have laid a foundation but, for the most part, were set aside and have not been adopted into law.

Near 6 p.m., the governor’s office issued a statement announcing that Rains is Florida’s new chief science officer. The statement did not mention Frazer.