It will be a tough act to follow. In January, chief scientist Rajiv Shah left the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to lead the U.S. Agency for
International Development. Yesterday, the Obama Administration nominated his successor at USDA: Catherine Woteki, a Ph.D. nutritionist who heads health
science and food safety for Mars Inc.
Shah was a startling choice intended to rejuvenate the $2.9 billion research
portfolio at USDA. Just 36 years old, Shah had worked on agricultural development for the Gates Foundation. Shah spent just 6 months at USDA, but was
well-regarded and created a fair amount of energy. Supporters of agricultural research credit him for helping to secure a 30% boost in competitive
grants and a 64% boost in the agency's budget request. He was also recasting
the mission in terms of high-profile issues, such as bioenergy and climate change.
Whereas Shah arrived at USDA with medical and business degrees, Woteki has a long and relevant resumé.
After getting her Ph.D. in 1974, Woteki worked in academia and the federal government. In 1990, she became director of the Institute of Medicine's Food
and Nutrition Board, then served at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1994 to 1996. Next she moved to USDA, where she
oversaw food safety until 2001. Following a 3-year stint as dean of agriculture at Iowa State University, Woteki moved to Mars Inc.
During her first year at USDA, in 1996, she was acting under secretary for research, education and economics—the position she will return to,
if confirmed by the Senate. She'll also have the title of chief scientist, which was added in 2008.
Ian Maw of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Washington, D.C., says Woteki is a good fit. "I'm absolutely thrilled. She's got
all the qualifications to do a superb job." That opinion is shared—mostly—by Karl Glasener of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society
of America, and Soil Science Society of America in Washington, D.C. "Cathie is very sharp and a bit of a pit bull," he says. But Glasener notes that
Woteki's policy and research experience is light on farming. "We'll have to wait and see whether she'll be another 'rock star' for ag, loved by all
like her predecessor Rajiv Shah."
*Correction: This item previously said that Woteki served as acting deputy under
secretary for research, education and economics (REE). In fact, she served first
as deputy under secretary for REE and then as acting under secretary for REE.
She has been nominated to be under secretary for REE.