Ecological Politics

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

However, over the next few years, some of Lapointe's predictions bore out. For instance Lapointe correctly said that an increase in water flow through certain areas would correspond to massive coral reef die-off. He had a hard time proving a one-to-one correlation, but the timing of the two events is unmistakable: Following the highest outflows of fresh water into southwest Florida's estuaries in the early 1990s, 38 percent of the coral reefs died. According to Lapointe, this "mass extinction event" has left just six percent of living coral.

"It was like a fire raging out of control," Lapointe says now. "I couldn't sit around and watch everything die around me." Shortly thereafter, Lapointe resigned from the oversight committee, then says he was blackballed by those who stayed on. He hasn't served on any committees since and has had difficulty getting funding to continue his studies in those areas. "This was all based on politics, not science," Lapointe maintains.

Lapointe was banished, but Jones flourished. In 2000 the National Science Foundation gave FIU a six-year, $4.2 million grant to set up the Long Term Ecological Research center to monitor Everglades restoration. And Jones continues to defend his thesis that Big Sugar has nothing to do with the decline of the estuary. "The only reason that this isn't a bad dream that won't go away is because this is keeping the funding up," Jones says.

Fred Harper
This high-resolution radiometry image shows the algae buildup in Florida Bay
This high-resolution radiometry image shows the algae buildup in Florida Bay

Larry Brand is the antithesis of Ron Jones. The 49-year-old doesn't like to talk about himself and has trouble presenting his data in short, concise bursts for the press. Keeping up appearances isn't what he sees as part of his job. He's a researcher, a lab rat. He's about six feet tall and looks like a lone pine. His curly hair floats out around his mostly bald head like cumulus. He's clean-shaven, but usually wears jeans, dirty old trekking shoes, and beat-up shirts to work. He says he's had about fifteen students study with him at UM, but does the majority of his work alone.

By all accounts, Brand is as much a recluse away from Rosenstiel as in it. When he's not at the office, he's at his sprawling 1.2-acre home in South Miami working on his garden. "I like putzing around the house," he says. It's a huge project that keeps him busy. Brand isn't married and doesn't have children. He has flowers. His yard is full of heliconias, caladium, coleus, and, just for good measure, mother-in-law's tongue. "When I'm at home I like to pretend I'm not in the city," he says.

Brand grew up in Houston, where his father owned a printing press that put out phone books and materials for the oil industry. He was good in school, and by the time he entered the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1970s had developed a taste for science. "People were studying oceanography. It was a new frontier," he explains in his Texas monotone. Brand dove in. After finishing as an undergrad in Austin, he went to work with John Ryther at Woods Hole. Ryther's experiments with sewage bent the mind in ways that Brand loved.

These days he laughs at those experiments and calls himself "naive." But the biologist, who has long been a member of Amnesty International, has always sought to combine an element of justice with his career in science: "I guess it's a sense of obligation to the world. I have an education. I guess I should do something with it." Still Brand scoffs at the notion that he's a social activist. "Even with Amnesty International, all I'm doing is dealing with the truth."

When it came to Florida Bay, this quest for "truth" was getting him in trouble, and the politics of Everglades restoration was about to swallow him whole. As Brand would discover, dissent makes it tough to find funding because running against the current meant running against some of the main funders in his field: the South Florida Water Management District, the Army Corps of Engineers, even the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA and the district were putting money into the Jones camp at FIU not least because his group seemed to provide the path of least resistance: Its mantra remained "phosphorus, not nitrogen, was the pollutant." Scientists at Rosenstiel were getting money as well, albeit in smaller quantities. But Brand wasn't getting anything. In 2000 he gave another proposal to NOAA to study the sources of nitrogen flowing into Florida Bay. It was rejected, the first sign that he was being kicked out of the group. Brand scrambled and got some money from a smaller foundation on the East Coast, only half the NOAA amount.

With his funding grinding to a halt, Brand's position at Rosenstiel became shaky. The University of Miami put him on notice that he'd have to reduce his lab space. Scientific research centers depend on grant money to survive. In fact nearly 80 percent of the school's $30 million-plus yearly budget comes from outside funding -- places like NOAA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the EPA. "I call them the mafia," Brand says about the Rosenstiel system of channeling all grant money through the university. "If you work with the mafia, they'll let you continue your business. But you have to give them their cut." The notice was the beginning of a long battle that would end with Brand sifting through the trash in search of his equipment.

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