As state pushes science, one lab struggles to survive
NEW HAVEN — Louis Magnarelli, director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, likes to point out a 1999 photo in one of the agency’s publications.
In it, a concerned Dannel P. Malloy, then the mayor of Stamford, is peering through an electron microscope at the West Nile virus, which CAES had just been able to culture — a first in North America — helping prompt Malloy to begin mosquito-control efforts in his city.
These days Magnarelli is feeling more than a little ignored by the man who once counted on him to keep his citizens safe. Even at a time when every state agency has an economic target on it’s back, the CAES’s seems especially large.
It is back from the brink of death, having been slated for elimination in the original “Plan B” budget. Now, it faces a 30-percent budget cut as Malloy tries to close a $1.6 billion budget gap, the higher end of what most departments would suffer.
“I have no idea where this is coming from or what the motives are,” Magnarelli said. “That’s the mystery.”
There are a few theories, but most relate to a central truth: If people have even heard of this quasi-independent state agency, odds are they don’t know what it does.
“They’re kind of like of like the ‘Men in Black,’ ” said Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, whose district borders the CAES headquarters in the shadow of East Rock and who as co-chair of the Appropriations Committee is more aware of it than most. “Whatever they do, we would be in a world of trouble if they didn’t do it.”
Harp said she felt the agency had been hit disproportionately and given its public health function, cutbacks should be minimized. “Everyday they save us without us even knowing.”
CAES was founded in 1875, the first agricultural experiment station in the country. Its original function, which it still performs for the state agriculture department, was to check fertilizer to make sure its contents were as advertised. It counts among its notable accomplishments research that led to the discovery of Vitamin A, the development of the high-yielding hybrid that revolutionized commercial sweet corn production and critical research on Lyme and other tick diseases.
Its annual budget hovers around $11 million, more than a third from federal funds that pay for about 25 of its 92 employees. More than just growing fruit and vegetables on the back 40 – though it’s more like a back 75, 50 and 26 acres at research farms in Hamden, Windsor and Voluntown, respectively – CAES uses its state-of-the-art laboratories on its 6-acre New Haven campus to provide analysis and research in five core areas to several other state departments: chiefly public health, consumer protection, energy and environmental protection, and agriculture.
In 2005, its analytical chemistry lab was selected for the Food and Drug Administration‘s Food Emergency Response Network and outfitted with about $2 million in equipment for food testing during emergencies such as a terrorist attack. It tested thousands of shellfish samples after the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. But about 80 percent of the time, the equipment serves state needs.
Ben Barnes, secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, who said he received as many as 100 emails a day after CAES was put on the closure list, said his office felt many CAES functions were “far beyond” what other states do, and could be performed privately.
“One of my standards is, is this more or less important than taking care of child who’s a ward of the state?” he said. “Our conclusion was that it would be less harmful to the state of Connecticut and its residents to leave some of their mission undone.”
Senator Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the Environment Committee, which has been involved with many CAES operations, sees that attitude as part of an environmental assault by the administration. He cited the proposed elimination of the watchdog Council on Environmental Quality and the 16-percent cut slated for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“I think there’s a deliberate element here of making environmental safety and environmental standards very low on the priority list,” he said
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the other co-chair of the Appropriations Committee whose district also borders CAES headquarters, admitted even she was unaware of all the agency’s functions. In a tight economy, she said, the value of research often is questioned. “Because it doesn’t actually feed somebody or shelter somebody then it’s a cut.”
In addition to fertilizer testing, CAES also does feed testing for the Department of Agriculture, new crop development that targets disease and insect resistance and looks for economic potential – like grapes, and provides services for growers like two summers ago helping them manage and lessen the impact of the disease late blight that attacked the state’s tomato and potato crops.
CAES is also the regulatory body for the $1 billion greenhouse, nursery and floral industries, about half the state’s farming. Forty percent of their product is shipped out of state, all of which must be inspected by CAES.
Bob Heffernan, executive director of the Green Industries Council, who fought ferociously to get CAES off the closure list, said that aside from general ignorance about CAES and a misperception that farming in Connecticut is dying, he thinks there is a wariness of CAES’s independence – it is run by a board that owns its two largest farms through private trusts.
“I just think there was some licking of the chops from some of the budget people,” he said.
For Consumer Protection, CAES tests hundreds of food samples a year for up to 800 different pesticides. It also checks ethanol levels in alcoholic beverages and tests for heavy metals and other substances like melamine in items like imported children’s toys and pet food.
For the DEEP, it tests for pesticides and toxins in water, soil and sediment. It helps deal with invasive species in the state’s lakes and is the frontline for monitoring and defense against two major infestations, Asian longhorned beetles and emerald ash borers, that are devastating trees in bordering states.
“They are the bug experts,” said Chris Martin, director of DEEP’s division of forestry. “We look to them on where to look, how to look, how to be most effective.”
Perhaps most critical this summer is CAES’s work with the Department of Public Health on West Nile virus.
A wet winter and spring followed by heat is producing record mosquito numbers: 117,000 were trapped, identified and tested in June alone — more than in all five monitoring months last year — according to Theodore Andreadis, the chief medical entomologist who runs the program. West Nile has already appeared and Andreadis is bracing for cases of Eastern Equine Encephalitis as well as possibly a new virus. CAES is one of three labs nationally with the ability to identify new viruses.
Much of the mosquito program has run on federal funds, but this year U.S. Department of Agriculture has cut the $1 million it usually provides in half, and may cut it out entirely next year. Funding from the Centers for Disease Control dropped from $300,000 to $100,000. The state is supposed to be contributing a little over $200,000.
“We’re running on borrowed time right now,” Andreadis said. “We’re using a one-time surplus that we have to get through the season.”
Andreadis questions Gov. Malloy’s backing for a new $900 million research facility for the UConn Medical Center, when there are already nationally preeminent facilities at CAES.
“We’ve worked many, many years to build this program, to bring in the trained personnel to do all of these things,” he said. “It would be a shame; it would be a real shame to lose this.”
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