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USDA Nominee Brings International, Competitive Edge to Research

When advocates for agricultural research lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last year, one goal was to raise the profile of science at the massive agency. As a result of their efforts, a top position at USDA now carries the title of chief scientist. But last Friday, when President Barack Obama announced his nominee—Rajiv Shah, 36, a program officer at the Gates Foundations who has a medical and a business degree—the choice surprised and initially concerned some of those advocates.

“At first I couldn’t sleep,” recalls Karl Glasener, director of science policy for the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America in Washington, D.C. “I thought, ‘He doesn’t understand agriculture.’ ” But after learning more about the nominee, Glasener is feeling better about the pick. Indeed, he and others say Shah could be just what the department needs.

Shah has an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and studied health economics at the Wharton School of Business. In 2001, the Gates Foundation hired him to work on global health policy and child immunization. Since 2006, Shah has directed the agricultural development program for the foundation, which has given away several hundred million dollars for research and other approaches. “He’s all business,” says Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “He’ll ask the right questions, and he is someone who is scrupulous about evidence."

If confirmed by the Senate, Shah will serve as undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE), overseeing the billion-dollar Agricultural Research Service and three other agencies. Unlike past undersecretaries, Shah has no experience with U.S. agriculture. Glasener suggests that could turn out to be a benefit. “He could be a breath of fresh air that the REE mission area really needs,” Glasener says, noting Shah’s familiarity with the medical community, which has been far more successful than agricultural research at boosting federal funds.

In addition, Shah might be able focus USDA on funding peer-reviewed, competitive research; the Gates Foundation is known for the rigor with which it reviews its grant applications. “I believe he’s going to favor growth of competitive programs and science,” says Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the Michigan State University College of Agriculture in East Lansing.

Shah’s international experience at the Gates Foundation dovetails with Obama’s recent call to Congress to double U.S. agricultural aid. Changing course with USDA won’t be easy though, Glasener points out. Shah will have to deal with congressional earmarks for research, powerful farm lobbies, and opponents of agricultural biotechnology.

Photo: Gates Foundation