1.Florida scientists claim they were fired for being outspoken
2.Florida aims to regain momentum on Scripps, biotech
A couple of very timely items with the Biotech Industry Organisation (BIO) having its annual bash in Philadelphia.
This years event is bound to be packed with mayors and governors from across the US desperate to lure biotech companies to their area with promises of tax breaks, government grants, and even help with parking.
One of those who will be pumping the flesh is Florida governor Jeb Bush, brother of president George W. Bush. As our second press report below notes, "Bush plans to shake hands in Florida's booth at the upcoming Bio2005 biotechnology industry conference in Philadelphia. He said he'll do whatever he can to 'close the deal' when life-science companies express interest in relocating to Florida."
Bush has already spearheaded an initiative to hand over USD510 million of Florida and Palm Beach County taxpayers money to build a new biotech centre for the Scripps Research Institute, based in San Diego. Land, buildings, labs, offices, equipment, even employees' salaries for seven years: Scripps got it all for free, putting in no money of its own. The company will eventually repay Florida up to USD155 million, half of the state's investment. But the payback provision will not kick in until 2011. Bush and other Florida officials hope that Scripps will make Florida a biotech hub like San Diego.
The wisdom of using San Diego as a model is open to question, given the industry's record of failure there. But Bush seems blind to the risks. "It's always good to have sceptics, but I like to be on the dreaming side," he told the press. "It's a lot more fun on the dreaming side of the road."
Yet biotech, as the Associated Press has reported, "remains a money-losing, niche industry firmly rooted in three small regions of the country: 'This notion that you lure biotech to your community to save its economy is laughable,' said Joseph Cortright, a Portland, Ore. economist who co-wrote a report on the subject. 'This is a bad-idea virus that has swept through governors, mayors and economic development officials.'"
(Biotech investment busy going nowhere)
Another damaging effect of the bad-idea virus taking hold can be seen in item 1. Florida Department of Environmental Protection scientists have been warned that they would face "the harshest possible discipline" for hampering efforts to build Scripps.
And firings and relocations of scientists who have spoken out is just what has been happening of late as science has been subverted by development pressures.
Lisa Interlandi, an attorney for the Environmental & Land Use Law Center which represents groups opposed to the designated site for Scripps, is clear about where the pressure is principally coming from: "There was an atmosphere created, from the state, from the governor's office, that this project had to be approved at all costs."
1.Some South Florida scientists claim they were fired for being outspoken
By Neil Santaniello
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
June 19, 2005
Andy Eller said he was just doing his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service job -- protecting the endangered Florida panther from development -- when he was fired in 2004 for finding fault with the science his employer used to approve home and road construction through panther territory in southwest Florida.
Marine biologist David Boyd said the Florida Park Service reassigned him to an office 170 miles away after he pointed out environmental flaws in a plan to widen an 18-mile stretch of U.S. 1 into the Florida Keys.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection scientist Herb Zebuth said supervisors tried to make him see the Scripps Florida biotechnology park project their way after he voiced concern about its potential impact on water storage at a public meeting.
The day after his February 2004 remarks appeared in the press, Zebuth said he was pulled into a phone call with then-DEP Secretary David Struhs for "a pep talk ... on how great Scripps was."
Previously, Zebuth said, DEP workers were warned they would face "the harshest possible discipline" for hampering efforts to build Scripps, "which, of course, is being fired."
Ideally, science goes about the business of finding answers to questions unpolluted by politics or ideology. Conclusions get handed off to the policy makers, who factor the findings into their decisions or perhaps reject them. But in South Florida, the cases of Eller, Boyd, Zebuth and other federal and state environmental agency scientists demonstrate that political science can get in the way of real science, environmental activists and other critics charge. During the past six years, a series of instances of scientists openly criticizing or exposing the flaws in environmental protection and restoration has brought a range of retaliatory actions -- from reprimands to firings.
"I can say that I've seen a trend," said Frank Jackalone, the Sierra Club's senior regional representative for Florida. "I have heard anecdotally from my fellow policy advocates that the word in the scientific community is: Don't rock the boat."
Officials with the state agencies and the water management district have said that they don't try to control what scientists can do or say, or retaliate with pink slips for open differences of opinion with management. They have attributed the dismissals and demotions to work performance problems.
A wildlife service official said the agency strives to upgrade its scientific output and address deficiencies. The Department of Environmental Protection said it has an open-door policy allowing staff freedom to question agency directives.
"The amount of great science being brought forward is overwhelming," said Ernie Barnett, DEP director of ecosystem projects.
The water district's former executive director, Henry Dean, said earlier this year: "I would never try to suppress scientific debate."
But South Florida Water Management District scientists Lou Toth and Nick Aumen said they learned first hand that open criticism can be an occupational hazard for government scientists in South Florida.
Toth, who helped turn the Kissimmee River from an engineering slash into a meandering waterway again, was a "chief environmentalist scientist," the district's upper echelon of scientific talent, along with its 2001 Employee of the Year.
But when he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that momentum to fix the river had slowed, he was demoted in 2003, removed from the project and given a $6,593 pay cut. To explain that action, district officials branded Toth a maverick employer too openly critical of co-workers.
Aumen got into trouble in 2000 after complaining government managers were too inaccessible -- glued to cell phones and stuck in meetings -- to communicate well with their scientists. After his remarks appeared in The Miami Herald, Aumen was fired from his $96,977-a-year research director job, despite past positive reviews of his performance. Supervisors explained the move in part by accusing Aumen of being too "cynical" and too inept at managing people.
Aumen rebounded with an aquatic ecologist job for Everglades National Park and now sits on a key committee for the federal government watching over the water district's Everglades water-filtering work.
Joe Schweigart, a consultant and former water district deputy executive director, said he recalls an open atmosphere and healthy respect for differences of scientific opinion at the district into 1990s.
Today "that atmosphere seems to be throttled," said Schweigart, who once oversaw the water district's Everglades cleanup project.
Just one or two scientists getting into trouble for speaking out can have a stifling effect on honest scientific commentary, said Samuel Poole, a lawyer and former water district executive director.
"It doesn't take too many incidents ... for people to learn that if they have something to say that the administration doesn't want to hear, they should keep it to themselves," Poole said. Charges of controlled science are not unique to South Florida, others note.
"I think in general scientists who work for the government are preyed upon by political pressures," said Audubon of Florida Senior Vice President, Charles Lee. But, he said, "any time you have the stakes as high as they are in South Florida, you are going to have greater pressures."
One monumental pressure is development -- builder plans to spread more and more gated communities and golf courses over green spaces where certain flora and fauna already are dwindling or reduced to a rarity. Put both forces together, "and it becomes a kind of recipe for manipulating science so development can move forward," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
When Bruce Boler came to Southwest Florida five years ago to protect water quality on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency he said developers, "were so used to just getting everything rubber-stamped."
But Boler said his aggressive enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act angered some federal environmental regulators too. He resigned his EPA post in October 2003 after his employer decided to accept a developer-funded study that concluded natural wetlands can release more pollution than they soak up. Boler now works for Everglades National Park.
The wetland study was a stretch "to give builders credit for improving water quality by replacing natural wetlands with golf course and other development," Ruch's group, PEER, charged.
Eller's case, too, is one of science subverted amid development pressure, PEER has argued. Wildlife service officials said Eller was fired for missing work deadlines and for other performance problems. Eller said he was shown the door for being a whistle- blower.
Eller filed a complaint under Federal Data Quality Act about the information the wildlife service used reviewing panther habitat destruction by builders.
In agency documents "They told me to insert information I knew was falsely portraying healthier [panther] populations," Eller said. "They were slanting biological opinions."
After conducting an internal review, the wildlife service admitted in March that it had disseminated errors and discredited science with its panther data, understating the animal's actual habitat, and said it would correct the problems.
"I feel validated," Eller said.
"We recognized there were some flaws," said Jay Slack, field supervisor for the wildlife service ecological services office in Vero Beach. But he added there was nothing nefarious to it. Others in the agency had brought the problem to light too, and corrections did not change in a major way earlier panther conclusions, Slack said. He said his agency is a "catalyst" for upgrading and improving the science it uses.
The former Florida Keys biologist, Boyd, said he was to relocate to Hobe Sound from a Key Largo office that was shut down. Boyd said both occurred after he criticized a federal permit allowing a wider U.S. 1 into Florida Keys.
In written comments, Boyd said it wove in outdated information and ignored a major report warning of an already-strained Keys ecology. That did not go over well with the upper level management of the DEP, which oversees his agency, Boyd said he later learned.
"Our bosses were unhappy [with the criticism], but I'm sure it came from above them," said Boyd. He left the park service of his own accord and, so as not to uproot his family, took a job with the Monroe County Health Department.
DEP officials say Boyd was relocated to fill vacancies at the other office, not in retaliation. "We're losing a lot of people to retirement, we're having to move a lot of people around," DEP Secretary Colleen Castille said earlier this year.
Asked about Zebuth's allegation the DEP would not tolerate anti-Scripps comments, Castille said: "I think Herb misunderstood his conversation with managers."
But Zebuth said he is crystal clear on what he heard.
"There was an atmosphere created, from the state, from the governor's office, that this project had to be approved at all costs," said Lisa Interlandi, an attorney for the Environmental & Land Use Law Center representing environmental groups opposed the Mecca Farms site for Scripps.
DEP's chief since February 2004, Castille said scientists can speak honestly at her agency when they want to question or challenge policies. "Scientists in the agency feel very comfortable and come to me if they feel we're going down the wrong path," Castille said.
DEP employees tell it differently, said Jerry Phillips, Florida director for PEER. "They're scared to talk to their supervisors candidly on projects, much less go to the district director," Phillips said.
Water district officials have said they don't suppress what scientists can say or report. But critics say the agency behaves in a way that shows some intolerance for negative feedback on its Everglades work.
Last January, water district employees slated to participate in a National Academies of Science forum on the Everglades in Hollywood were told not to go, shortly after their bosses became ticked off by an academies report on the agency's water-storage and land acquisition work. Other attendees branded what happened as a "boycott," but district officials denied that. They said their experts scheduled to present information had more pressing business to tend to then. The water district noted that it had at least participated in the meeting on paper because it forwarded technical reports in lieu of people.
"It was not a good use of our staff time," said Chip Merriam, district deputy executive director, at the time.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
2.Florida aims to regain momentum on Scripps, biotech
By Stacey Singer
Palm Beach Post, June 09, 2005
Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development arm, announced Wednesday that it had retained the nonprofit Milken Institute to develop a strategic plan for building the state's life-sciences industries.
Bush, calling himself the state's top economic development official, said he would be personally involved in the marketing effort. Bush plans to shake hands in Florida's booth at the upcoming Bio2005 biotechnology industry conference in Philadelphia. He said he'll do whatever he can to "close the deal" when life-science companies express interest in relocating to Florida
"This is really important, so governors need to be involved with this," Bush said in remarks to reporters recorded by his staff after his closed meeting in West Palm Beach this week. "When people ask me... to be part of the team that closes the deal, I'm going to be there."
Bush met with about 20 hand-picked economic development and education officials in West Palm Beach Tuesday, asking pointed questions about how agencies work together when a company shows interest in moving to Florida, attendees said. Bush asked the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County whether its relationship with county commissioners had improved since the rancorous early days of the Scripps project. They assured him it had
The BDB had secured Mecca Farms and the adjacent Vavrus Ranch as a home for a 4,000-acre biotech village around Scripps in October 2003. After the county took on the Mecca property, the BDB transferred its contract to buy part of the Vavrus ranch to a spin-off it had created. That spin-off stands to reap a $51 million windfall, after selling development rights to a partnership of the Lennar-Centex home builders
Many in the county still believe that windfall belongs to the public. Environmentalists believe the land should not be developed at all, but restored as a watershed to supply the wild and scenic north fork of the Loxahatchee River
While lawsuits over the dispute wind their way through federal and state courts, marketers are trying to return the focus to the original vision for Scripps' expansion to Florida ”” high-wage, high-skill jobs that can diversify the economy and produce new treatments and cures for diseases.
"Our competitor states were holding us up to a certain amount of ridicule, saying, 'Look, Florida had this announcement, and now inertia has taken over,' " said Darrell Kelley, who heads Enterprise Florida. "Now we can prove to the rest of the world that Florida is serious about life-sciences development
Kelley said he has a six-point plan for what needs to happen next
*Market Florida as a biotech/life-science center by "ensuring the rest of the world understands the importance of the Scripps decision to put its eastern location in Palm Beach County
*Sell the concept within the state, by ensuring "everyone understands and becomes an advocate of the evolution of the life sciences in Florida
*Attract venture capital to the state to finance the growth of new companies.
* Improve the science infrastructure, especially the amount of wet-lab space, by encouraging private-sector investment
*Help develop a workforce that has the education and training to step into the new biotechnology jobs
*Strategically market and develop the land set aside to develop a biotechnology industry
*Kelley said the discussion will continue on June 29, when the county's BDB convenes a much larger "Bioscience Stakeholders' Meeting" on these topics, at the West Palm Beach Marriott
*"What we are doing is regaining the momentum," Kelley said. "Now there is a whole new level of energy. Now we want to capture the moment."