Miami should fight to keep federal science center — and its 100 science jobs

St. Petersburg is trying to lure the Southeast Fisheries Science Center on Virginia Key with the promise of a new headquarters.
St. Petersburg is trying to lure the Southeast Fisheries Science Center on Virginia Key with the promise of a new headquarters. NOAA

Few Miamians are aware of the unique and thriving scientific community located on Virginia Key. The Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC), a research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has flourished on the shores of Bear Cut on Virginia Key, in the middle of Biscayne Bay, for more than 50 years.

The Center has led to a decades-long collaboration between SEFSC and its neighbors, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (my alma mater) and the adjoining Atlantic Oceanic and Meteorological Laboratory. These institutions draw millions of dollars in federal grant money to Miami every year and support significant research into the health of our waterways and the stability of the environment. The partnership between these top-flight scientific facilities also helps safeguard our clean-water economy — and the billions of dollars that the economy produces — by keeping Biscayne Bay clean, local fisheries plentiful and our water sparkling.

But this important collaboration will disappear unless local governments work together to save it.

The SEFSC has long needed a new building, and the city of St. Petersburg has been working to lure the center to its coast. A recent feasibility study conducted by NOAA found that the high cost of living in Miami, its intractable traffic situation and the ever-growing risk of sea-level rise were factors favoring a move.

At the same time, however, the study ultimately concluded that SEFSC’s mission would be best served by constructing a new building on Virginia Key and remaining where it has been for more than five decades — in Miami. Why? In large part, because of the important collaboration between SEFSC and its Virginia Key co-habitants and their long-term research investments in the local environment.

As always, though, money may prove decisive. St. Petersburg has offered to build the SEFSC a brand-new building — an offer neither Miami nor Miami-Dade has done anything to match. SEFSC scientists mentor students, monitor Biscayne Bay, study the watershed and its wildlife, work with local nonprofits, such as Miami Waterkeeper, and collect key long-term survey data about the delicate interplay between our unique ecosystems and the many local industries that depend on them.

This groundbreaking work — which brings in millions of dollars in federal money every year — is likely to attract even more money in the future. After all, the federal government recently designated Biscayne Bay as one of the 10 most imperiled “Habitat Focus Areas” in the country — a designation that comes with funding for, among other things, water-quality studies, which supports our multibillion dollar tourism industry.

But we must do more.

Unless our local government gets serious about matching St. Petersburg’s offer or providing other incentives, we will continue to lose out on attracting the kinds of high-paying science and technology jobs that all of our politicians so often say they want—the kinds of jobs the SEFSC already provides.

If we are really serious about combating “brain drain,” if we truly intend to turn Miami into a center for innovation and research, if we in fact hope to draw the kinds of scientists who can solve the environmental problems of our future, we need to put our money where our mouth is: our federal, city, and county politicians need to work together to keep the SEFSC—and its more than 160 science jobs—right here where it belongs.

Rachel Silverstein, Ph.D., is executive director & waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit organization that advocates for South Florida’s watershed and wildlife.