Ecological Politics

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

Brand was losing the battle for public opinion as well. Attacks came from scientists at the South Florida Water Management District as well as other universities. They said Brand had made the same mistakes as Lapointe: He'd extrapolated but didn't have the data to back up his arguments that nitrogen could travel from sugar plantations to Florida Bay. "I have respect for Larry Brand," says Joe Boyer, an FIU biologist who's one of the lead scientists on the Everglades restoration project. "[But] he's put forward a couple of whoppers, like [the one about] nitrogen."

Boyer, and many other scientists, say the nitrogen sources vary too much to be accurately traced. Nitrogen makes up nearly 80 percent of the air we breathe. It's also found in rain, groundwater, peat, plants, and fertilizers. Nitrogen goes through several cycles in which it changes from gas to liquid and back again. "Nitrogen cycling within the Everglades is quite complex," says Dave Rudnick, a lead scientist at the South Florida Water Management District and a Brand opponent on the nitrogen question. The nitrogen found in the Florida Bay could also be coming from farmlands or residential areas closer to the bay, like the Redland. The result is a very slippery debate with few definitive answers.

But, as it was with Brian Lapointe's arguments about coral reefs, behind Brand's hypothesis is a mountain of evidence showing that nitrogen from agricultural runoff is causing major ecological damage in estuaries around the world: the Adriatic Sea, the Venice Lagoon, the Baltic Sea, the Chesapeake Bay, the Black Sea, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the "dead zone" at the mouth of the Mississippi River. It's been shown that some of this nitrogen in the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone" travels from as far away as farmland in Iowa to the end of the Mississippi. "About the only place where this isn't an acceptable hypothesis is in South Florida," says Lapointe.

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

Brand and Lapointe's positions weren't just scientifically unacceptable -- they were tantamount to heresy. "Frankly I don't understand the motivation," says Ron Jones of Brand's and Lapointe's hypotheses, "unless they don't want the Everglades restoration project to go through."

Lapointe had escaped, but Brand faced up to these critics. It wasn't pretty. At one meeting about Florida Bay in April 2001, South Florida Water Management District official Mike Collins attacked Brand so viciously, calling him irresponsible and damaging, that Scott Nixon, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, felt he had to stand up in his defense. "[Brand] put himself on the line and someone accused him of recklessness and inappropriate behavior," said Nixon. "I got the feeling that people were influenced more by personal than scientific differences."

To this day Collins is unapologetic. "I sat and watched this crap go on for ten years," he says. "But at some point someone has to make a decision. I can't tell the taxpayers that you're going to pay another ten million dollars for research. I'm sorry. Florida Bay doesn't have another ten years."

Collins has since authorized the project to move forward with a plan to pump more fresh water into Florida Bay. More fresh water, a team led by Ron Jones argued, would mean less salt, less seagrass die-off, less algae. This was the exact opposite of what Brand and Lapointe had argued the district must do; they said the plan would lead to more algal blooms. But it didn't matter. Science had had its chance. Now it was the government's turn. And the government had decided who its scientists were. The Brands of this world were just getting in the way.

3. After that meeting, things went from bad to worse for Larry Brand. The University of Miami told him he had to consolidate his lab space. Lab space is tight at UM, so Brand stalled. He argued that he had two active grants and needed the space to complete his obligations to the concerned foundations. Two months passed and Brand didn't vacate, so the administration told him again. Brand and an administrator at Rosenstiel exchanged hasty communiqués in which each stated their cases: The university claimed it needed the space urgently; Brand asked for a little more time. That's when Brand went to collect samples from Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades, returned, and found his nightmare had begun.

One can only imagine the horror he felt the day he saw his decimated lab. It was his work, his life gone. A million things must have run through his head. Brand is a romantic, not stupid. He understood he was upsetting government officials like Mike Collins. He also knew he was a pariah in the scientific community. But the attacks on his lab had upped the ante, and Brand could only guess why.

Certainly Big Sugar was upset with him. At UM, powerful sugar growers were within earshot. Alfonso Fanjul, Jr., for example, the owner of the giant Florida Crystals, is a member of the board of trustees at the university, and is known to throw his political weight around. In 1996 Fanjul called President Clinton to complain about a tax on sugar that Al Gore was proposing. A White House intern named Monica Lewinsky bore witness to the call; the Everglades bore the brunt. The tax proposal was shelved. Then Fanjul threw $23 million at state legislators to make sure a sugar tax to help pay for Everglades restoration wouldn't happen in Florida either. Of course, it didn't.

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