Academic Freedom Suffers in Florida

Since they serve as the intellectual lifeblood of a democracy, universities traditionally have been given license to transcend petty political squabbles that would otherwise get in the way of their academic research. One example has been the ability of academics to conduct research in Cuba, despite the U.S.'s longstanding embargo on the country, as long as they obtain the appropriate license.

In Florida, though, where the anti-Castro sentiment runs high, the state legislature last week voted unanimously to prevent researchers from state-funded universities to travel to Cub--or any of the other five countries deemed "state sponsors of terrorism" by the U.S.--even if the travel is privately funded. Needless to say, this is a serious step back for academic freedom, and it could negatively impact a wide variety of fields, as today's Science reports:

Academics say the law will hurt efforts to learn about Cuba's agriculture, ecology, and marine environment--all topics that could have a significant effect on Florida's economy. Agricultural economist William Messina and his colleagues at the University of Florida, Gainesville, for example, have been researching citrus farming in Cuba, the world's third-largest producer of grapefruit. "Their grapefruit yield has gone up in the past few years as a result of new policies that promote collaborations between Cuban farmers and foreign agricultural and food-processing companies," says Messina. Those collaborations, he says, have meant tougher competition for Florida grapefruit growers trying to sell to Western Europe. Researchers in the state have been carrying out similar studies of Cuba's shellfish, sugar, and tomato industries.

Environmental researchers are also chagrined by the new law. FIU geographer Jennifer Gebelein, for example, is currently in Cuba looking at the impact on Cuba's coral reefs of land-cover changes around the island. The work is important from a conservation standpoint "because Cuba's coral reefs are a center of marine and biological diversity in the Caribbean," says Lauretta Burke, a geographer and senior associate at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. Gebelein is scrambling to finish her fieldwork before the law goes into effect on 1 July.

Marine scientist Frank Muller-Karger of the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, says that Cuba's plans for offshore oil exploration make scientific exchanges between Florida and the island more important than ever before. "Any major pollution event off the coast of Cuba may reach Florida, and many important fisheries in the Keys may be connected to Cuba," he says.

Those reasons alone are enough to make one realize this academic travel ban is a bad idea. In addition, the fact that Cuba is listed as a "state sponsor of terrorism" is suspect to begin with. For example, in the U.S. State Department's most recent Country Report on Terrorism, released in April 2006, Cuba is given this designation, along with Libya, Sudan, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. In the section on Cuba, though, the first reasons given seem petty, to say the least:

Cuba actively continued to oppose the U.S.-led Coalition prosecuting the global war on terror and has publicly condemned various U.S. policies and actions. To U.S. knowledge, Cuba did not attempt to track, block, or seize terrorist assets, although the authority to do so is contained in Cuba's Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism, as well as Instruction 19 of the Superintendent of the Cuban Central Bank. No new counterterrorism laws were enacted, nor were any executive orders or regulations issued in this regard. To date, the Cuban Government has taken no action against al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.

Cuba did not undertake any counterterrorism efforts in international and regional fora. Official government statements and the government-controlled press rarely speak out against al-Qaida or other designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

I guess the "you're either with us or against us" doctrine is in full force here.

It's unlikely that Florida's ban on academics researching in Cuba has anything to do with terrorism, though. Those familiar with Florida know that the politics are driven to a large part by fervent anti-communism toward Cuba. This gives the latest move a slight touch of Cold War nostalgia, making it appear even more absurd.

Regardless of the reasons, or lack there of, for the new Florida law, it subjects scientists and academics to undue restrictive entanglements with political issues that have nothing to do with the science the first place. A law like that has got to go.

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