Fla. marine scientists blocked from Cuba research

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An American who worked on a new oil spill cleanup protocol involving five gulf nations, including the U.S. and Cuba, said he is confident this agreement will pave the way for future collaboration on environmental issues between the U.S. and Cuba.

When that day comes, said Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund, protocols will be based on research projects already underway.

The oil spill agreement, brokered and advanced through meetings in Tampa, awaits publication by the Coast Guard before it becomes official.

“There is so much expertise at public universities in Florida,” said Whittle, who directs the fund’s work on marine and coastal ecosystems in Cuba. “It’s a shame their hands are so tied.”

Researcher Vaughan, director of tropical research with the private Mote Marine Laboratory, said new agreements and protocols will be an opportunity for U.S. scientists to make contributions to the environment they once thought impossible because of politics. Vaughan specializes in coral reefs and works with Cuban scientists.

Shut out of these new opportunities, Florida’s public school professors fear losing out on more than a role in new discoveries. Florida may also lose out on attracting the brightest marine biology students.

The University of North Carolina, for example, has an annual student summer expedition to Cuba to study the coral reefs off its shores. The University of Tampa has a marine biology department and though it has no plans to visit Cuba, other departments at the private school and the baseball team have.

“Obtaining knowledge is always important,” said Frank Muller-Karger, a professor at the USF College of Marine Science. “Sure, we can learn what another researcher discovered in Cuba. But top students want to develop knowledge.”

Proponents of the 2006 act said at the time that any travel to Cuba financially supports an oppressive regime.

Gov. Rick Scott, asked about the lingering impact on Florida universities, echoed that sentiment in a statement to the Tribune last week.

“Governor Scott is committed to growing opportunities so Florida families can succeed and live the American Dream,” said John Tupps, Scott’s deputy press secretary, “and he is firmly opposed to the Castro regime that works to oppress such opportunity and freedom.”

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat whose district includes the University of South Florida, was part of the unanimous vote in 2006 but says now that times have changed.

“It’s a different world today,” Joyner said. “We need to acknowledge that.”

There are no signs today of efforts to overturn the law, even at the university level.

USF issued this statement to The Tampa Tribune last week: “The University of South Florida stands for the core values of academic freedom and the open exchange of knowledge and ideas in the least restrictive environment possible. The current restrictions were enacted in the political process and we recognize that is where they will be resolved.”

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