Ecological Politics

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

The Fanjuls did not return repeated calls for comment.

4. Brand struggles to look busy these days. The scientist now has three labs and an office at Rosenstiel, a third of the space he once occupied. Most of his equipment is in storage on Dodge Island or in different metal containers around the facility. The metal roofing of one of the containers collapsed on his equipment, so Brand and the maintenance men have propped up some wood girders to keep it upright. Brand says the limited space makes it impossible for him to take on graduate students or argue for funding for large projects. The consolidation, he complains, has effectively crippled his research on Florida Bay as well. At Rosenstiel he often looks as he might in his 1.2-acre house: putzing around, fiddling with plants.

Brand says he's suing the university. The space he retains is in disrepair. In one small lab he has no working electrical outlets, forcing him to run an orange extension cord from a $100,000 spectrofluorometer -- which helps him measure compounds in algae -- to a separate room to operate the machine. The ceiling has missing tiles, leaving electrical wires exposed. And to top things off, despite all the urgent need the administration said it had for his old space, the school has done little: Three of his labs now house grad students who use them for offices. Two other labs make up a private graphics design company. The university insists it is maximizing the use of space for all its employees and students, so this is normal.

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

In the meantime Brand keeps plugging his hypothesis about the sugar plantations being the source of the nitrogen that is polluting Florida Bay. Despite constant attacks and snickering, he continues to participate in Florida Bay and Everglades meetings, although he's no longer asked to present data. Still there are signs that his research is having an impact. Even if neither will fund his projects, both NOAA and the South Florida Water Management District have projects testing some of his theories. Representatives of both agencies said they'd like to see him working with them more closely. Brand laughs at their cynicism but holds his tongue. He knows that momentum is starting to shift back to him.

Last year the National Academy of Sciences, the most respected independent science board in the country, issued a report on Florida Bay. Like Brand and Lapointe's findings, the report cast doubt on the assertion that high salt content in the bay killed off the seagrass, which led to the algae. It also questioned the wisdom of sending more fresh water into the bay since it may contain the very nutrients, like nitrogen, that may be causing the algae. "The higher natural or anthropogenic loadings of nitrogen and, perhaps, phosphorus that may accompany increasing freshwater fluxes from Shark River Slough," the academy wrote, "could potentially increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of phytoplankton blooms in regions of the Bay where these waters mix."

The report hit the Jones and Collins camp like a bomb. "They should never have been involved to begin with," says Jones, who disputes the academy's findings that reopen the debate on nitrogen. Collins was much more adamant about his feelings: "The NAS report, that was horseshit, that paper they produced," he fumes. "They should be shot." Collins said he respects the academy's work except with regard to the Everglades restoration project. "What they've done is totally unethical."

And so, along with Lapointe and Brand, the National Academy of Sciences has joined the list of heretics. Brand simply smiles at the irony. "The National Academy of Sciences report saved me," he says.

When Brand does speak in public now, it's usually to small audiences. At a recent meeting of the Friends of the Everglades in a conference room at Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables, Brand was the keynote. FOE is a small but willful group of people; when it doesn't get its way, it usually sues. This tactic helped put the original lawsuit against the state government and the South Florida Water Management District on the table. It may do so again over the Florida Bay question.

With the Friends in front of him, Brand felt at home. He talked freely about Washington's nefarious deal to "subsidize" Big Sugar in order to bring Cuba's Castro to its knees since sugar was the lifeblood of Cuba's economy. He then tried to explain his complicated theory about nitrogen, the Florida Bay, and the sugar plantations. At times his audience seemed to be lost. Some pressed Brand on the phosphorus issue, which prompted him to explain: "Phosphorus is the problem in the Everglades. Nitrogen is the problem in Florida Bay." Afterward, though, they were back on the same page. Brand was surrounded by Friends members who scoffed at Big Sugar's interests and the government's complicity. Brand laughed with them, then repeated his familiar refrain: "All you have to do is look at the data."

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