Columbia University cuts funds for biosphere project

January 27, 2003|By Andrew C. Revkin and Karen W. Arenson | Andrew C. Revkin and Karen W. Arenson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Columbia University plans to curtail sharply its financial support for Biosphere 2, the ambitious but troubled effort to simulate Earth's ecology under glass.

The university is under contract with the owner of the Biosphere, a 250-acre research center in the desert north of Tucson, Ariz., to manage it until 2010. Three years ago, the university trustees approved $20 million to expand research and teaching programs there until 2005.

But those efforts, and the fate of the center, are in doubt, many scientists and officials involved with the partnership said.

The university has frozen hiring plans for new faculty members for the Biosphere and has announced that it will move a master's degree program in environmental public policy from the center in Oracle, Ariz., to New York. Biosphere 2 is owned by its builder, Edward P. Bass, a Texas billionaire and a longtime supporter of environmental causes.

Two reviews in the fall, one by a university panel and one by independent reviewers, found that the research did not justify further investment, university officials said. University officials said Tuesday that they would continue the management contract but that Columbia had to cut its financing.

"It's just a very, very expensive facility," a senior official said. "While it's produced some good science, my view is it's just not worth the level of investment that Columbia had been projecting to put in."

The university has put $25 million to $30 million into the center since taking over its management in 1996.

Officials said they had not made a formal decision on spending. A spokesman for Bass said the university had told him that no more money would be forthcoming after June.

Several officials and scientists involved with Columbia, Bass and the Biosphere said the university had concluded that it had no contractual obligation to invest more money.

The senior executive vice president for administration at Columbia, Robert Kasdin, declined to comment on Biosphere finances. The plan, Kasdin said, had called for creating a broader group of partners, "so that the Biosphere would be economically self-sustaining."

Biosphere 2 -- in theory Earth is Biosphere 1 -- has held a mix of promise and problems since it opened in 1991 as an extraordinary experiment in which eight human "biospherians" were sealed into a mock world along with 4,000 animal and plant species. There were a rain forest, marshes, a desert and a vestpocket ocean.

The project was conceived, built and mostly paid for -- up to $200 million or more -- by Bass.

By 1994, with noxious gases building up under its glass domes, invasive species thriving, and biospherians' tempers flaring, the effort ended. Bass sought a university partner to help transform the Biosphere into a research center.

The project meshed with Columbia's efforts to create an Earth Institute, spanning many disciplines in an integrated approach to studying environmental trends on the planet.

In 1999, when the Columbia board approved continuing the management contract and $20 million in further investment, Bass pledged an additional $30 million to help Columbia run the center.

But the university has gone through enormous changes since then, with a new president, Lee C. Bollinger, and a new director for the Earth Institute, Jeffrey Sachs, an economist whose focus is less on basic biological research and more on meshing commerce with environmental conservation.

A weaker economy has also put pressure on Columbia to re-examine its spending.

Martin Bowen, the chief financial officer for Bass' companies, said in an interview recently that he was disappointed with Columbia's planned reductions.

Barry Osmond, who as president of Biosphere 2 has been working to improve research operations, said he would try to persuade university officials to maintain support at least long enough for him to assemble a consortium of universities or other financing sources to help sustain the project.

Bowen said that might be difficult, because Columbia's decision to pull back had already "devalued the project."

"When the word is out in the academic and scientific community," Bowen said, "that the institution responsible for this vision, for building this project into something that is meaningful, wants to pull out, what does that do?"

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