The selling of the biolab

The vanishing monkey was just one missing link in the saga of the UC Davis biolab, whose hard-sell campaign is drawing accusations of deceit

Somewhere between Osama and Saddam, there was that monkey. A slippery simian’s unsolved escape from an ostensibly secure University of California, Davis, research facility remains a major embarrassment for an institution that’s attempting to sell its campus as the site for a level-4 national biocontainment laboratory. The monkey—dubbed Drano by the local paper because of its conjectured escape into the campus sewer system—was one of the first cracks in the university’s campaign to win a $200 million contract from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build a facility that could handle the highest-level contagions, such as Ebola and anthrax.

“We couldn’t have wished for more than that monkey getting out,” said Stop UCD BioLab Now’s Samantha McCarthy of the monkey, whose escape was leaked to the press on Valentine’s Day. After all, if a monkey could escape a UC Davis lab, why couldn’t a deadly microbe? The ill-timed revelation (the university filed its application with the NIH only days earlier) made national headlines and was seen by many as a harbinger of greater risks ahead. In short order, Davis Mayor Susie Boyd reversed her public stance and issued a proclamation that the city would not support the project. A subsequent series of security breaches at the UC-operated Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories further called into question the safety of locating such a lab on a campus with nearly 50,000 students and faculty.

But unlike the Gray Davis recall campaign—which has had a dedicated crew of conservative politicians and journalists to keep it alive in the daily press—the UC Davis biolab story largely fell out of the headlines as it began to appear that the lab itself would go down the drain. Opponents of the lab now charge that this was a deliberate maneuver on the university’s part to create a diversionary “smokescreen” consisting of questionable relocation plans and an elaborate campaign to spin the perception of the lab from “biodefense” to “biosafety.”

In regards to safety, McCarthy points to the university’s own Web site, which assures citizens that security planning for the proposed laboratory will be “carried out by the UC Davis police force in conjunction with the Safeguards and Security Department of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.”

“Right there, I think, is a reason not to pass them on technical review,” said McCarthy, referring to the Livermore security problems.

Marj Dickinson, UC Davis’ assistant vice chancellor of government and community relations, said she understands such concerns but remains confident the university can do the job. “I think that it’s legitimate to be looking for assurance that we can manage the lab responsibly and effectively, and you know, we believe we can. We’re keeping a close eye on what the issues have been at the labs and intend to learn from them. And the monkey was a very isolated, very unfortunate situation.”

As for Livermore providing security, Dickinson said, “We’re gonna use our own folks for security.” The university, she said, has been getting advice from a variety of sources, of which Livermore is but one. “We’re trying to make sure we mine all the best minds and resources about how to undertake the security in the most effective manner.”

Next Thursday, representatives from the NIH will make a site visit to the Davis campus, a sign that—monkeys and other security breaches notwithstanding—the university has indeed met the institute’s technical standards. “I wouldn’t characterize it as technical approval,” said Dickinson. “What we’ve got is a site visit following a peer review. We believe that means our science is quite competitive.”

The visit also signals the second phase of the consideration process, in which the NIH will begin weighing a variety of site-specific issues.

Among them is community support.

“I think our community-outreach efforts have been comprehensive and wide-reaching,” said Dickinson. “It’s clear that we have substantial support for the project, and it’s equally clear that there is some vocal opposition, as well.”

Whether that will be clear to the NIH inspection team remains to be seen. “The NIH has told us that participation in the meeting is limited to, um, campus representatives,” explained Dickinson.

Samantha McCarthy (pictured at front, center, with other Stop UCD BioLab Now activists) calls the university’s biolab-relocation proposal “a complete sham.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Asked whether that would include any representatives from the many university professors who have gone on record in opposition to the lab, Dickenson further refined her terms. “The NIH indicated that they want to meet with folks who are working directly in the construction, financial-management, design and community-relations elements of the proposal.”

As it turned out, much of the biolab’s support came from outside the city of Davis. Opponents now insist that the university promoted the idea that the lab could be relocated to other communities in Yolo County or Sacramento County, as a smokescreen to divert attention while the controversial original plan quietly moved forward on schedule.

“Basically, this was a publicity stunt to get us to back off and to get people to think it was going somewhere else,” argued McCarthy, whose group filed a lawsuit against the university after last month’s announcement that the NIH would only consider the original Davis site.

“You get all these news releases that say we’re looking for another site, and they’re e-mailing the city council,” continued McCarthy. “And then in the original letter [to the NIH], they essentially say, ‘We know you really can’t do that.’ It was a complete sham.”

Was there ever reason to believe that NIH approval of a relocation was possible?

“There was no reason to believe that it was not,” answered Dickinson, insisting university officials would not have “pursued or responded to the many offers” from other communities otherwise. “It would have been—at best—cynical to have responded to those offers in the way we did, if we had known that NIH was going to respond the way they did. I mean, we have relationships with those communities that are important for a variety of reasons, just as we have relationships with this community that are important for a variety of reasons.”

Among those relationships is Dickinson’s own marriage to a Sacramento County supervisor, her husband Roger, whose board passed a resolution in support of the biolab. She said the issue of conflict of interest was raised at the meeting and quickly dismissed. “Early on in Roger’s service in office, county counsel had looked into whether there was a conflict between his work and my work and ruled that there was no conflict.” Dickinson said her husband’s involvement was limited to being one-fifth of a 5-0 vote. Still, records from the meeting indicate it was Dickinson’s husband who made the motions. Regarding evidence that Dickinson was involved in the wording of the motion, she answered tersely, “I worked with county staff.”

Opponents contend that the university continually refined its strategy for selling the lab throughout the last year and took steps to downplay any connections between the lab and the war on terror. A number of references to “Homeland Security” were removed from the biolab Web pages, and the word biodefense was systematically changed to the decidedly more cheerful biosafety.

“At first, the name of it on the [UC Davis] proposal was the Western National Center for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases,” said Miriam Wells, a UC Davis professor who opposes the lab. “If you see the proposal itself, they called it a biodefense lab. But now [the university calls] it a biosafety lab. How dumb do they think we are?”

Dickinson insisted it’s all a misunderstanding of meaning. “Biodefense was the formal title that is included in our proposal,” she said. “But let me tell you how I understand the term biodefense. Biodefense is a term used in the health industry, the medical field, to speak to the body’s mechanisms for responding to infection.” She insists it does not refer to “the more general public perception of the word defense and its association with the military and that sort of thing.”

Yet some believe that, should the NIH give final approval in the fall, the lab could end up conducting classified research for the government, a development that Wells said would be anathema to the spirit of an institution devoted to the free dissemination of ideas.

“We don’t do classified research at UC Davis,” responded Dickinson.

Asked if this rule could be overridden in a national emergency, Dickinson said it would be unlikely. “You don’t just do classified research. There are a whole series of capacities that an institution needs to have and a whole series of signoffs that an institution needs to have. And, in fact, University of California campuses can’t do classified research without approval from the system-wide office.”

But is there any reason to think that approval to do classified research sometime in the future would be hard to get?

“I think there is much more reason to think that it would be unlikely to be approved,” Dickinson reassured.