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  • Should Scientists Beware of the Government?
Aug 2008
Aug. 28, 2008 — Even if you don't work for the government, auditors can shut down your lab. According to a co-worker at a lab that I worked for, one such auditor said that if he wanted to, he could order our lab to replace all of the tiling in the floor of our facility.

Perhaps then all scientists should heed the case of Bruce Edwards Ivins, who died of an apparent suicide on July 29, 2008, seven years after an unknown person mailed letters containing the anthrax-causing microorganism Bacillus anthracis that killed four people and made 15 others sick. The FBI only had circumstantial evidence against Ivins, but he became the chief suspect in the anthrax case after the organization had wrongly implicated Steven Hatfill.

The anthrax letters were mailed to several people and places, including Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy and various major news organizations. The FBI said that Ivins might have targeted the senators because they are pro-choice Catholics, whereas Ivins was a strict Catholic. Still, Ivins did not seem like Eric Robert Rudolph, who was convicted of bombing abortion clinics and the grounds of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, after the FBI had falsely implicated Richard Jewell for the Olympic bombing.

Did Ivins have the life of a killer? Although he had some unusual hobbies such as juggling, playing practical jokes and composing satirical ballads for co-workers leaving the lab, these actions don't make him a cold-blooded murderer.

His many friends defended him. They pointed out that he was a member of the Red Cross and played piano at church for 28 years. He loved to work in the garden. When he died, he left behind a wife of 33 years and two adopted children.

Ivins worked in his lab at Fort Detrick, Md., for decades without incident. More than a hundred people had access to the Bacillus anthracis in his lab. He had earned the Exceptional Civilian Service Award-the highest award from the Department of Defense for civilian service-for creating a life-saving vaccine against anthrax. The FBI pointed out that he could have created a market for the vaccine by making people sick, but most government scientists do not gain a lot of money, if any, from patents. The government owned the patents.

Ivins' therapist said that he had a long history of homicidal intent, but did the FBI put her up to saying that? She had a long criminal record, but Ivins had none. The therapist took out a restraining order against him and claimed that he brought poison to soccer games where a favorite female player practiced.

The therapist said that years ago, when Ivins did his postdoctoral work, he pursued a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority after she rejected him. On the other hand, I'm sure many scientists have pursued sorority women in college and been rejected and felt hurt by that. However, the therapist did say that he had a plan to kill his co-workers, which would be chilling if true.

What do you think? Did Ivins kill four people and injure 15 others? Or did the government drive an innocent scientist to suicide? Did he even commit suicide, or did the government "silence" him?


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