Ecological Politics

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

In fact if anything has become clear in the last few weeks, it's that sugar remains an obstacle to Everglades restoration. Last month, at the behest of lobbyists, Jeb Bush signed a bill that granted greater flexibility to the requirements that sugar growers must meet as they clean phosphorus from wastewater. It also extended the timeline within which the plantations must meet these pollution standards. The law threatens to derail the fragile alliance between environmentalists and lawmakers that helped make the Everglades restoration a possibility in the first place. More important, the alterations may affect four billion dollars in federal funding. Florida and Washington split the eight-billion-dollar price tag, and Washington has made clear that it doesn't like what sugar lobbyists have done to the cleanup efforts.

But whatever the reason for the eviction, Brand's life at Rosenstiel would only get harder after the fateful Saturday. The next few months involved a flurry of e-mails, angry words, and even threats. Brand slowly recouped his materials, but he still doesn't know where some of his computer disks and documents are. In January and February 2002, the unwonted moving continued. Maintenance men took his stuff from three chemistry labs and two "wet" labs where Brand had samples and cultures. He oversaw most of this but became frustrated with how careless the movers were. On one occasion, Brand got but an hour's notice of their arrival. On other occasions, he returned to his lab to find locks on his cabinets picked open, materials missing, fridges unplugged, samples ruined.

"For a while I was getting really paranoid," Brand says now. "I felt like they were just waiting for me to leave so they could move my stuff."

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

There was good reason to worry. He wasn't there for one of the bigger moves in early 2002. A maintenance man who was says he saw his colleagues throwing away most of the equipment they found in order to clear out the office before Brand returned. Brand charges that to do the job even faster, movers used axes to destroy air pumps, tubing, and light banks that he'd used to grow cultures as part of a one-million-dollar National Institutes of Health study on anti-cancer and anti-HIV compounds found in algae.

The administration's aggressive behavior caught the attention of at least one maintenance man who called it "an obvious kick in the balls." Some of Brand's colleagues were also flabbergasted. The current department chair of Marine Biology and Fisheries, Sharon Smith, said Brand's case "was not dealt with in a professional way.... It was poorly handled." Before she was chair, Smith wrote to administrators calling the "attack on Larry Brand despicable."

Among his colleagues, there were rumblings of a "conspiracy" to oust Brand. But culpability varied according to whom you spoke with. Brand was known as a congenial colleague but a complainer. Others knew of Brand's contentious research regarding Florida Bay, but few were ready to leap to any conclusions. Smith, for example, says she knows nothing of a sugar growers' conspiracy to purposely slow Brand's work. Another colleague, who wished to remain anonymous, simply commented, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean it's not true."

In any case Brand's colleagues are steering clear of the politics hovering over the embattled iconoclast. But it's hard. "Politics have very much entered into the game," said Liana McManus, a marine biologist at the school. "Nobody is completely neutral. He [Brand] also has his own set of filters.... [But] there are forces that overcome the objectivity of science. And the reality is that he's been marginalized in this debate."

Rosenstiel's dean, Otis Brown, is also perfectly aware of the political forces at work. "Sometime in the last ten or fifteen years, science has shifted from being a watcher to a player," he said at a meeting in his office recently. But Brown, who has the last word on these matters, denies that politics had anything to do with management decisions in Brand's case. He says Brand's funding was dropping while others' needs were increasing. Brown adds that Brand didn't respond to repeated attempts by the administration to remove his equipment, so the university was obligated to do it for him. "I don't know whether it was [that] he was going to ignore it or he felt they didn't really mean it or what," Brown said. "I don't know what he was thinking. But the long and the short of it was that as time compressed, as space issues compressed, yes, there had to be more direct approaches made."

In fact, Brown says, if anything, he's shielding his scientists from the evil political chicanery of South Florida. "We can't have a specific agenda when it gets into these sorts of discussions," he explains, "because then we're just one more political pressure group working out there rather than being a trusted provider of fact, or a sense of how something works. That's what I think that our role has to be, and I'm doing my darndest to make sure people can do that."

Brown adds that he's never had any contact with the board of trustees or high-level administrators in Brand's case or any other case. "The Fanjuls have never talked to me about this. And I've never had any of their intermediaries talk to me either," he says. "If I felt that was driving the agenda of this school, I wouldn't be dean."

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