The Great Slurp

Gov. Bush's Scripps gamble is sucking up state funds -- and the Everglades with it

Somewhere right now, in some remote farm, maybe in the Midwest or clear on the other side of the globe, a sheep is rubbing obsessively against fence posts and barbed wire, as if trying to reach some incessant itch. The sheep will scratch itself until its wool disappears, right down to the skin, and then to the bone if no one stops it. It's terrible for the sheep but perhaps fortuitous for human beings. Because of the sheep's self-destructive behavior, scientists with Scripps Research Institute may someday find a cure for one of modern day's most feared diseases.

That sheep was on the minds of Scripps scientists recently as they unpacked microscopes and centrifuges at a temporary lab set up at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. There, they'll study the sheep's ailment, a fatal disease called scrapie, and try to figure out why it has never been transmitted to humans. What's significant about scrapie, says Scripps neuroscientist Chris Baker, is that it acts in similar ways to something more deadly to people: mad cow disease. Figure out what makes humans immune to scrapie and the Scripps team just might find a way to save us from mad cow disease. "If we could develop something that could prevent people from being infected," Baker said while taking a break from the unpacking, "then it's possible we could develop a treatment."

If that happens, perhaps in years or decades from now, Scripps will begin the arduous task of getting the treatment into drugstores. They'll start with animal testing and then, with government approval, give doses to human volunteers. If things go wrong during testing, as they often do in the world of biomedical research, Scripps has Florida law on its side. State law offers just the kind of immunity from civil actions that make researchers developing new pharmaceuticals feel right at home, Scripps President Richard Lerner noted to a luncheon crowd recently. "If you do your best to help people," Lerner explained, "then you can't be sued when it hurts them."

Fred Harper
Scripps research assistant Cheryl Demczyk (left) and scientist Chris Baker work in the temporary lab in Boca Raton. At right, a wild orchid grows near the land where the Scripps city will be built.
Colby Katz
Scripps research assistant Cheryl Demczyk (left) and scientist Chris Baker work in the temporary lab in Boca Raton. At right, a wild orchid grows near the land where the Scripps city will be built.

It was a moment of candor for Lerner, and it was the first time that anyone from Scripps had publicly spoken of the loophole. Clearly, the loophole is one reason, perhaps a major one, why California-based Scripps decided in October to build a massive new branch in Palm Beach County. As more details emerge on Scripps' move to Florida, protection against legal action is just one of several alarming problems with the deal Gov. Jeb Bush cut to get the institute to make a home in the Sunshine State.

Overflowing with optimism last fall, Bush called the Scripps Florida project "a seminal moment in our state's history." His plan immediately received widespread praise in a county where fellow Republicans have launched a massive campaign to attract voters. Despite all the paeans to Scripps' bounty and idealism, however, it soon became clear that Scripps Florida would fall far short of Bush's vision of uninterrupted bounty and idealism.

Scripps Florida will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions, more than projected. It is not likely to produce anywhere near the number of jobs pledged, and taxpayers probably won't see the returns on their investment promised by Bush, critics say. Florida's proposed investment in Scripps and connected projects has grown to at least $1.6 billion, more than three times higher than original estimates. The actual number of jobs created may be only half of the 50,500 new jobs promised by Bush's office. Worst of all, biotech experts and economists now say the financial benefits may never compare to the money paid by the state's taxpayers.

Of greatest concern to environmentalists, the Scripps complex, which will be a self-contained city, will be built among Everglades wetlands that have been slated by the county government for protection. Environmentalists fear the Scripps city will undo years of efforts to restore the Everglades and stop South Florida's sprawl. Nat Reed, a founder of Florida's preservation efforts and aide to Presidents Nixon and Ford, said the Scripps deal, by attaching the biomedical program to plans for a western city, has become a way for developers to build in what should be protected wetlands. "This is a land scam that ranks right up there with the biggest boondoggles in Florida history," Reed says. "It could set off a series of land deals that will destroy the environment, overrun roads, and the whole thing will probably result in a legal challenge which could hang it up for years."

The work done by a Scripps' Palm Beach County branch could be monumental: cures for diseases, work on the human genome, and astonishing developments in science with a Florida dateline. Founded 80 years ago by lifelong philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, the research center is an organization with noble goals, including searching for cures to cancer, AIDS, and Alzheimer's disease. But the big question surrounding the Scripps deal -- which likely won't be answered for decades -- is whether the likelihood of those accomplishments outweighs the possibility of damaging the Everglades and spending billions in state and federal money.

During a recent speech, molecular biologist Dr. Charles Weissman, one of Scripps Florida's principal scientists, acknowledged the pressure put on his organization. "The only thing I can complain about," Weissman joked, with the buoyancy of someone who has just won the lottery, "is that I've been given so much positive publicity that I don't know how to live up to it." On the shoulders of Scripps scientists are no less than the Everglades restoration efforts, the legacy of Gov. Bush, and the reputation of just about every Palm Beach County elected official. Now, Scripps must find a way to succeed with a plan that, from the beginning, has been beset with problems.

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