Miami Herald op-ed: A vicious legal battle is the result of putting politics over science
The following op-ed was published in the Miami Herald on January 22, 2024.
As scientists with collectively more than five decades of experience in the Everglades, we know the critical importance of transparency in science.
Restoring the Everglades is the most complex ecosystem restoration project on the planet. It’s expected to cost taxpayers $23 billion (and counting). The merits or shortcomings of any Everglades project must be openly vetted to ensure the public interest is served.
The crux of that vetting is science.
Withholding or distorting science to fit politically palatable outcomes does not serve the greater good. The open exchange of research, models and data is the accepted gold standard.
That’s why the legal action brought by the nonprofit Everglades Foundation against its former top scientist, Thomas Van Lent, is deeply concerning. We are perplexed to watch the Foundation claim he stole “trade secrets.”
Trade secrets? In Everglades science?
There are no trade secrets in science. That very thought is anathema to us. It violates standards approved by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Scientists have dedicated our careers to understanding the delicate clock spring of nature, as expressed in one of the world’s great natural resources, the Everglades. It is ludicrous for the foundation to think it has an exclusive franchise on Everglades science.
Over the decades, we have come to value Van Lent not just as a colleague and honorable man, but as one of the foremost experts in Everglades science. We testified to these points in a Dec. 15 sentencing hearing. The hearing followed a contempt of court charge stemming from the foundation’s attempts to seize the personal devices and data of Van Lent and his wife after he left the foundation.
We are astonished that the foundation’s charges of “trade secret” theft could lead to actual jail time for a well-respected scientist (the ruling is under appeal).
We are part of the community of long-involved scientists who have watched with dismay as the goalposts of “Everglades restoration” have been moved and the baselines weakened.
We don’t know the motives behind the Everglades Foundation’s lawsuit against Van Lent, filed after he left to work with another nonprofit, Friends of the Everglades, in 2022.
We do know the foundation defied science when it did a dramatic about-face on the most controversial Everglades project this decade: the $4 billion Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir. In early 2018, the foundation went public with its science-based criticism of the reservoir design, saying much more land was needed for it to work.
Then, after Gov. Ron DeSantis was elected, the foundation changed its tune, calling the project a “crown jewel.”
DeSantis now uses that same language to describe the project.
Van Lent stayed at the foundation for years after this, hoping to persuade it to not let politics hold a sword of Damocles over the head of science. Now, the sword of Damocles hangs over his head.
EROSION OF SCIENCE
Whatever the motives, the impact of the Everglades Foundation’s aggressive legal action is clear: It undermines the scientific credibility of the $23 billion effort to restore the only Everglades in the world. If we are not permitted to openly discuss the science behind massively expensive restoration projects such as the EAA Reservoir, how can the public have confidence they will work?
Having watched the steady erosion of science in Florida — and its distortion to fit political needs — we view the persecution of a good man as a dismal low point.
The Everglades Foundation should be an ally, actively promoting the open exchange of Everglades science. Instead, it’s waging a divisive and distracting battle to stifle it. Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Christopher McVoy is an Everglades hydrologist and book author who currently serves as vice mayor of Lake Worth.
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. Christopher McVoy is an Everglades hydrologist and book author who currently serves as vice mayor of Lake Worth.