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Iowa Regent under fire for reaching out to Mason regarding professor's ethanol research

BY STACEY MURRAY | FEBRUARY 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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An Iowa legislator criticized the state Board of Regents President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter after he reached out to University of Iowa President Sally Mason regarding a UI professor’s research.

“The Board of Regents is supposed to be a buffer against political interference in academic freedom, not the vehicle for it,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames. “What is even more important, he seems to be using his position on the Board of Regents to work through the power structure. If I could imagine myself in the situation, and the president of the university and a member of the Board of Regents wants to put pressure on my research — that’s a lot of pressure and that’s inappropriate.”

Rastetter wrote in an email on Jan. 30 to Mason, “The industry would appreciate being able to provide factual information so this professor isn’t uninformed; is there a way to accomplish that, thanks Bruce.”

His message to Mason came after Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, approached the regent and claimed UI Professor Jerry Schnoor was “an embarrassment to the regent university.”

These accusations followed published scientific works by Schnoor claiming biofuel production negatively affects the state, because it draws too much water from aquifers — a serious environmental issue.

Schnoor, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, is the codirector for the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research and a specialist in water-quality modeling and aquatic chemistry. He testified before the U.S. Congress in 1990. He presented his findings last month in Washington, D.C.

Rastetter co-founded Hawkeye Energy Holdings in 2003, a company that produced 450 million gallons of ethanol per year. At this time, the company was the third-largest ethanol producer in the United States. He served as the CEO until 2011.

The intervention of Rastetter drew fire from Quirmbach for a “disrespectful tone” when discussing Schnoor’s research, but Rastetter said he was only passing on information.

“It was simply passing along an email and asking for dialogue and communication between the parties,” he said. “I don’t side with renewable-fuels interest — I was only interested in a dialogue.”

But Quirmbach finds fault with Rastetter’s methods.

“If that was what he was trying to do, he did a bad job of it,” he said. “The words were deeply disrespectful of a prominent expert in the field and on the UI faculty.”

While Quirmbach praises Rastetter’s work as a regent who pushes for funding through the state Legislature, he said regents don’t belong in academic research.

“As far as interfering in academic research, that is crossing a line he shouldn’t cross,” he said.

Schnoor, the professor at the heart of the disagreement, finds no fault with Rastetter — he only notes the importance of the aquifer issue.

“I don’t think he overstepped his boundaries,” Schnoor said. “As a member of the Board of Regents, he’s entirely privileged to ask questions.”

While Rastetter and Quirmbach disagree on the intent of the message, Schnoor continues to focus on the issue at hand, rather than the disagreement.

“I’m only anxious to talk about environment problems, especially water sustainability in Iowa and elsewhere,” he said.


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