IEEP wastes federal dollars

Norman Luxenburg
Guest Opinion

Iowa City Press-Citizen

Monday, May 3, 2004

It is one thing when an individual or a group of individuals wishes to invest time and money in a cherished dream project. It is something entirely different, however, when such individuals get a U.S. senator to sneak an extra $50 million of federal taxpayer money as a rider on page 441 of an omnibus appropriations bill.

Indeed, when the very questionable attendance and potential revenue estimates put forth by the Iowa Environmental/Education Project advocates are subjected to analysis, it appears almost a certainty that the project will require additional public funds in order to survive. If everything goes as planned and there are no significant delays and cost overruns, the project is supposed to be ready in four years at a cost of $180 million.

As of now, it seems that outside of the $10 million startup gift by Des Moines construction company owner Ted Townsend, the only serious money the rain forest has received has been the $50 million of federal money and land, which Coralville has purchased and given to the operation. In other words, there still seems to be a shortfall of well over $100 million.

Rosy in a dream world

All types of extremely optimistic future successes of the project are presented as almost a slam-dunk. We are told that the Iowa Environmental/Education Project probably will get 1.5 million visitors a year and certainly 1.3 million under unfavorable conditions. Scott Carpenter, in his "Advancing science" (April 18) column, indulges in some very wishful musing about what if the rain forest facility became a "centerpiece for alternative energy and sustainability, a national center for environmental research and policy, and even a terrestrial ecosystem research facility that can address global climate change research."

Things look very rosy in the dream world; however, things become much more hazy and clouded when we get closer to the world of reality and expenses. In that real world, Columbia University cut its losses and ended its programs at Biosphere 2 at the end of last year after spending millions during eight years of trying to use that facility for research and study the same major areas as the projected rain forest.

When explaining why the Iowa forest research programs will succeed while Columbia failed, Carpenter asserts that Columbia failed not because of inability to attract excellent scientists but because of "design flaws" which were initially not designed for carbon dioxide experiments and because first-rate scientists do not want to come to flawed facilities. Iowa, on the other hand, he states, has learned from their mistakes and, therefore, will be successful in attracting excellent researchers and large grants.

That is, unfortunately, not quite the case.

Wising up

As the following quote from an article in Bio-Science, written shortly be-fore Columbia threw in the sponge, makes abundantly clear, Columbia's failure was caused by its inability to attract first-rate, well-known scientists (to this we can add that those types of individuals are usually pretty well established, and there have to be some very important special inducements to get them to move to a fledgling facility): "Columbia assumed management in 1996 and launched a three-year, $3 million retrofit designed to turn an experiment into a research center capable of doing first-rate science ... Columbia has spent more than $25 million on the Biosphere. ...

"The university also hired Osmond, a noted Australian botanist, to lure well-known faculty to the Arizona desert, attract students and win federal research dollars. Resident and visiting scientists began studies aimed at learning how rising temperatures affect carbon dioxide ... despite widespread advertising and active recruiting efforts, no big-name researchers have signed on ... The number of students has fallen by half. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy ... has said it has no extra funds to finance Biosphere operations.

"'We've failed out there' said the disappointed noted geochemist Wallace S. Broecker. 'You can't run a research facility with no faculty members of note, and you can't run an educational program for so few students' ... 'Columbia finally wised up' says William Schlesinger, Dean of Duke University's School of the Environment and Earth Sciences."

It is interesting to note that it was Broecker, who was most influential in helping induce Columbia to get involved in Biosphere, who attributes its failure to a lack of research faculty and not to design flaws, though obviously some did exist.
Reach Norman Luxenburg, a University of Iowa professor emeritus of Russian, at nluxenburg