As the end of the Bush administration nears and the scientific community looks ahead to leadership and policy changes federal science agencies, it is increasingly clear that the leadership of all federal science programs face major challenges. For example, among the stated priorities of the Obama administration and the 111th Congress will be action on the nation’s energy and climate change policies.

Secretary of the Interior designate Ken Salazar has a difficult job ahead of him reforming the Department of the Interior, which includes the United States Geological Survey, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Salazar has been described as a “cowboy-hat-wearing Western Democrat in the mold of Cecil Andrus,” who, as Secretary of the Interior for President Carter, was responsible for significant environmental legislation. Salazar, a Democrat, served in the United States Senate until his selection to serve as Secretary of the Interior.

Over the past eight years, some bureaus within the Department of the Interior have been suffered from sex, financial, and accounting scandals, and political interference with endangered species management. According to some analysts, management has been more focused on increasing energy output than on managing or protecting public lands. Salazar has won mixed praise from environmentalists. As a fifth-generation rancher and a Senator from the West, he has close ties with the land, has supported his state’s efforts to limit groundwater impacts from the process of in-situ uranium mining, and often taken unpopular stands against oil shale. Overall he has been accepted as a compromise candidate because of his demonstrated commitment to conservation, and history as a moderate who knows the importance of working across party lines to get things done.

The selection of Tom Vilsack to serve as Secretary of Agriculture has been met with mixed reviews from many in the scientific and environmental communities who are calling for food safety, hunger, and local-farming to be higher priorities. Vilsack, a former Iowa Governor is a centrist who was named biotech’s Governor of the Year in 2001, has close ties with Monsanto, and is a vocal advocate for ethanol, which worries many environmentalists and research scientists. Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development noted that Vilsack “represents mainstream production ag.” However, he has also been a strong supporter of rural farm development in Iowa, has supported the labeling of GMO food, and has favored innovative policies such as subsidies for farmers that implement soil and water management practices. At the USDA he will face an agency whose reputation has become somewhat tarnished because of numerous food safety scandals, including those surrounding meat packing and tainted spinach.

Early challenges facing Vilsack will likely include managing the growth of the biofuels industry while ensuring sufficient food and feed grain, and also dealing with the environmental impacts of increased crop production. Additionally, the USDA has suffered from budget shortfalls that have hindered research, and it is likely that if he tries to shift research policies he will face serious obstacles from institutional inertia to agribusiness’s entrenched influence.

At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the nomination of Lisa Jackson has similarly received mixed reviews. Jackson has two decades of experience as an environmental regulator and helped crack down on greenhouse gas emissions in pollution-plagued New Jersey. However, critics note that during her tenure in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the department failed to adopt many important pesticide and chemical standards and delayed progress on emission targets. With the EPA, Jackson will inherit an agency that has been the subject of much controversy during the Bush administration. Jackson will be charged with the restoring calm within the agency as well as repairing its reputation as a credible generator of scientific information.

 


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