Broward News

Planck Neuroscience Discovery Day: Blinded by Science

It's a pleasant Saturday afternoon at the Max Planck Florida Institute by the FAU campus in Jupiter. There are food trucks in the parking lot and a jazz band on the stage by the main entrance to the laboratories. Who knew neuroscience could be so hip? 

Then again, considering the amount of taxpayer swag it took to convince the institute's German parent organization to open an offshoot in little old Palm Beach County, the least they could do was throw a party for us natives as part of their official opening week festivities.

Neuroscience Discovery Day, as it was styled, was graciously hosted, the institute's clean-cut and enthusiastic faculty, staff and students pitching in to greet the general public and entertain and/or inform us about the wonders of the nervous system and nervous system research. Though there were a few things to make us...nervous.

What was on display Saturday was the fantastic technology that allows the institute's scientists to observe nervous system activity at the molecular level--to track nerve cell interaction as it relates to "perception, thought, language, memory, emotion, and action." The stated goal is to develop treatments for disorders like Alzheimer's and schizophrenia. 

Undeniably great stuff. And unlike many of our lefty friends, with their paranoia about science, we think The Enlightenment was, on the whole, a good thing. We do, however, share the good comrades' skepticism of corporate power--and the Big Money is certainly at play at Max Planck Florida.

The cheap shot to be made about the institute is its German predecessor's entanglement with the Nazi regime. We don't believe in "the sins of the fathers," but that history has value as a cautionary note about the potential for perversion of scientific research.

Which brings us to point one: We can understand the "grand benefactors" behind Neuroscience Discovery Day including the magazine Scientific American and the Carl Zeiss Group, who manufacture much of the institute's technology. 

But what interest does the notorious, globe-spanning, private prison operator The Geo Group have in nervous system research? Are they out to treat Alzheimer's? Or are there perhaps new methods of behavior modification on the horizon?

Neither are we particularly comfortable with all of the members of Max Planck's board of trustees:

Inevitably, Palm Beach County's Mr. Ubiquity, George Elmore, is a key player, also chairing the Planck's fundraising arm. Elmore's public record is squeaky clean. But call us cynical--or maybe it's just the creepy resemblance to Noah Cross, the chief villain of Roman Polanski's Chinatown--but we find it hard to believe a man who made his fortune developing and paving much of the county spent every minute of his career walking on water. There may be a Pulitzer out there for the right, enterprising reporter.

Trustee Nasser Kazeminy, a multi-millionaire and Palm Beach Society figure--is not at all publicity-shy. Except for that nasty business back home in Minnesota when his generosity to former GOP Senator Norm Coleman blew up and helped sink Coleman's re-election campaign. We, and Senator Al Franken, thank him for that.

Interestingly, it was fellow trustee Louis Freeh who lead an investigation that cleared Kazeminy of some corruption allegations. But no one has yet cleared Freeh of the muck he himself compiled as director of the FBI, including civil liberties abuses and the Branch Davidian massacre.

Finally, like a punch in the gut, there is Planck trustee Henry Kissinger, whose bloodstained career--from the Christmas bombings of Hanoi to the murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende--should earn him a seat in the dock at the International Criminal Court in The Hague rather than any place of honor. Anywhere. Ever.

We had a fun, interesting time at Neuroscience Discovery Day. But some of the things we discovered left us feeling we needed a shower.

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