Ecological Politics

UM's Larry Brand flouts the grant system, pays the price

 1. On Saturday morning, December 1, 2001, Larry Brand parked his black Nissan pickup in the lot at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Brand's a professor there, hired as a phytoplankton ecologist in 1981, and tenured in 1987. During his two decades at UM studying the tiny, floating plants, Brand's life had become his work. He'd filled ten laboratories with thousands of dollars worth of equipment and hundreds of documents, studies, and surveys that he'd tucked away in a row of metal filing cabinets.

On that Saturday, Brand was carrying water samples he'd gathered in Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades. He expected to filter the samples, then freeze them in one of the half-dozen fridges he had. Brand collects water samples all over the Glades and Florida Bay, and measures them for things like nitrogen and phosphorus, the microscopic particles that make up fertilizers. This seemingly innocuous work had become a nuisance for some of the most powerful businessmen and politicians in the state of Florida -- as we shall see. But Brand wasn't too worried back then. He was concentrating -- as he always does -- on the work, in an almost monkish way. He isn't so much a religious man as an altruist. He had a duty to look for the truth in these particles, which can cause as many problems as they solve. And as a scientist, he saw the data leading him toward that truth.

But on that Saturday morning, it was hardly about the data, and when he opened the door to his lab, reality hit him like a 50-foot tsunami. Everything was gone: $100,000 worth of equipment, test tubes, beakers -- all his papers. His face flushed and his throat dried. "I was horrified," he would say later. There was no note to tell him where the equipment had been taken, no notice about whom to speak with concerning the missing documents. Nothing.

Fred Harper
This high-resolution radiometry image shows the algae buildup in Florida Bay
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNITED STATES GEOLOGICAL SUR
This high-resolution radiometry image shows the algae buildup in Florida Bay

Confused, Brand asked around the Rosenstiel. Some people said they'd seen maintenance men cleaning out his lab. Others said they'd seen them throwing things into the huge metal trash bins just outside the facilities. Brand asked a maintenance man, who confirmed the stories -- they'd thrown his stuff in the trash.

By now Brand's mind was spinning. He could think of a lot of people who'd want to stop him from proceeding on his research. After all, he'd spent the last few years challenging one of the premises of the government's eight-billion-dollar plan to restore the Everglades. If proved right, Brand's work could conceivably slow or even stop the entire project's massive forward motion -- begun in December 2000, when Presidents Clinton and Bush, Jr., the Florida legislature and governor, the sugar industry, and environmentalists signed off on the biggest ecological restoration plan in the history of the world. He had spoken against parts of this plan on several occasions, and when he felt no one was listening, he'd put his findings on a Website. He'd always repeat the same thing: "It's all in the data." But suddenly, as he searched frantically outside his Rosenstiel labs for his lost equipment, he realized that it had little to do with the data. This was about the politics of Everglades restoration.

2. Larry Brand has always been a bit of an accidental tourist when it comes to his work. He's done research in volatile places like Kuwait, Peru, and Turkey. In the early 1980s he went to Nicaragua. The Sandinistas were in power; Reagan was arming the contras to fight the Ortega brothers' Marxist regime. Paranoia abounded, and the tall, skinny, curly-haired gringo arrived in Managua's airport with a bag full of equipment to test phytoplankton. The bag included a set of special, razor-sharp needles that can gather one single plant cell on their tips; the Nicaraguan authorities were aghast at these unknown "weapons." "They thought I was CIA," Brand said. Luckily Brand's host was able to talk his way into the room where the scientist was being held and explain his mission to customs officials.

Brand stumbled into a similar predicament with regard to the politics of Everglades restoration. In 1995 the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a scientific wing of the Department of Transportation and a funding giant in his field, gave him and two other scientists a two-year, $184,000 grant to study the emergence of algae in Florida Bay.

Florida Bay is a shallow, 1000-square-mile estuary, a mix of salt and freshwater systems, at the base of the Everglades. Saltwater mangroves form its northern border and the Florida Keys its southern. Its grassy mud banks and mangrove islands are home to a wide range of species from conch to shrimp to lobster. It's an important spot for fishing and tourism; it helps support a $59 million-per-year shrimp industry and a $22 million stone crab fishery. As the depository for millions of gallons of fresh water streaming through South Florida, the bay is a fundamental part of the Greater Everglades ecosystem. If the Everglades is the system's mouth, Florida Bay is its stomach. As the watershed for this system, what happens upstream has a direct impact on the bay's ecological health.

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