Bill Gleason

Bill Gleason is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. He's also a fellow at the U's Supercomputer Institute. Read more about Gleason.

Posts about Government

News From Lake Wobegon's Birchwood Cafe: Iowa Straw Poll Breaks Pawlenty’s Back

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: August 21, 2011 - 1:41 PM



 Picture Credit: Tracy Singleton


(This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on  the day after the Ames straw poll.)

Dombey and Son
“As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back”

Mr. Keillor frequents the Side Track Tap, but there is another place in town, the Birchwood Cafe.  It is inhabited by a bunch of lefties, elderly hippies like me, vegans, people with nose-rings and purple hair.  You know, that type.  They buy food locally and hate Monsanto.

So this morning there was much discussion at the ‘Birch over Mrs. Bachmann’s disembowelment of Mr. Pawlenty, our beloved former governor.  Some even felt sorry for TeaPaw but there was a great deal of Schadenfreude. It was the coffee special of the morning.

Yuh see, TeaPaw was the victim of really bad timing.  He had cultivated his garden in Iowa for the last two years much to the annoyance of people who wanted him to show some leadership in fixing our budgetary problems in Minnesota.  He left us about six billion dollars in the hole.  Mrs. Bachmann pointed out some of his other shortcomings in the swordfight, er debate, prior to the so-called straw poll.

Another mistake that Pawlenty made – hindsight being 20/20 – was making such a fuss about Iowa. The Ames straw poll is basically a farce.  It costs thirty bucks to vote.  Talk about a poll tax.  The Ron Paul web site generously offered a free ride from anywhere in Iowa as well as a free ticket.  Of course someone had to pay for the ticket, didn’t they?

Intelligent folks—like Romney—didn’t participate.  Except Romney was smart enough to show up for the debate and the nation-wide publicity. He didn’t do very well in the straw poll, but no one is asking him to step aside. And of course Rick Perry waited for the day of the straw poll to toss in his Stetson.

The timing thing with Bachmann was remarkable. Pawlenty and Bachmann have never been friends.  She did a quick conversion to Iowaism.  Everything I need to know I learned in Iowa. Probably kindergarten. That sort of stuff. Pawlenty was also in a bad spot because of his previous encounter with Romney where he wussed out. So when Bachmann put the pin in his balloon, he unwisely struck back. Bachmann is absolutely a master at making critics look bad.

So we’ve basically been spared of both Pawlenty and Bachmann in Minnesota politics for the foreseeable future.  Wow, does that feel good.

So now it is on to Perry vs. Romney.  Can’t wait.  The ‘Birchers think that  Perry will do to Bachmann what she did to Pawlenty.  Wouldn’t doubt it.

Could I have another cuppa that Schadenfreude, please? (The ‘Birch has wifi.)

PS: I see that Paul Krugman is unhappy that he is losing his whipping boy. He had previously described our beloved governor as an “embarrassing ignoramus.”  Krugman had this to say earlier today: “What made Pawlenty fun was that he was supposed to be the smart, capable candidate, someone who actually knew stuff; and yet every time he opened his mouth on policy issues, he revealed that he didn’t know a blessed thing.”

Adam and Eve Help Out At The University of Minnesota

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: August 4, 2011 - 6:58 AM

Wikimedia: Adam and Eve
Lucas Cranach The Elder (1528)


(Originally posted on Brainstorm at The Chronicle of Higher Education.)


Those ethically challenged folks at the University of Minnesota are at it again… A couple of years ago we had a dean who served on the Pepsi board even though it seemed a little incongruous for a med school dean to be involved with a company that made products that rotted children’s teeth.  But of course we were assured by the Vice President of the Academic Health Center that this conflict had been declared manageable.  Then we had the spectacle of a different dean pointing out that after all what was happening with respect to conflict of interest policies was not illegal: “We’re not violating a legal statute.”

And then there have been a number of bimbo eruptions at the Carlson school.  An older one involved a faculty member who said of a potential speaker “It’s one thing if you’re bringing in a criminal to speak. But if someone’s under investigation, that’s fair game.” To what should be no one’s surprise given such an environment a student group has recently demonstrated what seems to be, at least, unethical behavior. A Missouri start-up is accusing students in a University of Minnesota class of copying its idea for a business.

So now what?  The University of Minnesota has just announced a sizable donation from an outfit called Adam and Eve, purveyors of among other things, porn and hard-core DVDs.  The press release announcing this happy marriage contains a link to the Adam and Eve site where wares may be inspected (probably NSFW and must be 18 to log on).

When asked about hardcore porn – something that’s believed to distort a person’s view of sexuality, Eli Coleman, director of the university program on human sexuality replied:

“If this was a company that was into child pornography or something like that, that was illegal, I don’t think we could morally accept something from people who are involved in illegal activities. But this is a company that’s responsible and is law-abiding…”

It is a sad day at a university when the ethical standard is: “If it is not illegal, we can do it.”

A Journal Shows Its Spine Against Industry - Medtronic - Sponsored Research

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: July 10, 2011 - 1:16 PM


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Choirboy Defense: Could these lads do anything wrong?

 I realize that many Medtronics employees are heart sick over this situation. I extend my sympathies to them. I once had the honor of visiting with Earl Bakken in my lab  on a snowy morning when we were the only ones who made it into work. I took the bus, and he crossed the street from the Radisson.   Medtronic is a wonderful company and this situation is disgraceful. My bet is that the people responsible for this will soon be gone. Live long and prosper, Medtronic. Our state depends on innovative companies like yours.

Earlier published in the Chonicle of HIgher Education. and used with permission.

Something remarkable has happened. A whole issue—June—of a prominent journal, The Spine Journal, is devoted to destroying industry-funded research supporting the use of a bio-therapeutic agent for spinal fusion, so-called  recombinant human bone morphogenetic protein form 2 (rhBMP-2) in the Medtronic product, Infuse.

This remarkable issue features an editorial that is available for download as a pdf: “A challenge to integrity in spine publications: years of living dangerously with the promotion of bone growth factors.”  It initially cites seven research publications for scrutiny. Altogether these studies report zero, nada, side effects in 780 protocol patients. The authors dryly add another citation (from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises)  to the list: “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Since then the side-effects of rhBMP-2 have become widely known. These include conditions related to unregulated bone growth as well as other disorders including sterility in males and cancer.

And what did these criticized studies have in common: Megabucks for the investigators from, primarily, Medtronic. Some of the authors of these studies have financial involvements with Medtronic that run in the tens of millions of dollars.

Sadly, this story is nothing really new to those who have been following the medical-industrial complex for years.  At our own place one of the docs got in trouble for testifying in favor of Infuse® research before Congress without letting his audience know that he was a consultant for Medtronic. Senator Grassley was annoyed.  I’d also point out that Dr. Carl Elliott (against type if one of my Brainstorm colleagues is correct in her aspersions against the cowardly tenured) has been valiantly crusading against using clinical trials for marketing exercises and other unethical practices in clinical trials.  Various administrative attempts to discredit him have been unsuccessful,  but he is being criticized even to this day by a flack for the Academic Health Center at the University of Minnesota.

The writers of this piece were really on their game. They point out that one of the openings often used by these shills is the choirboy defense: “We are an honest profession; our integrity is unimpeachable; our ethical standards are not in doubt; potential conflicts of interest are only ‘potential’…”  I’ve heard these same arguments used by three medical-school deans so far.

The editorial ends with the primum non nocere statement of the Hippocratic Oath. First do no harm.  It admits that harm has been done.  At first I was a little disappointed in this argument, but on reflection it really is that simple.  I’ve heard a medical school dean justify behavior based on the fact that something was not illegal.

Is ethical behavior too much to ask of the medical profession?

ps. Since the first draft, the matter has gone viral. Paul Thacker—who until recently rode shotgun for Grassley—writes “War Breaks Out Over Medtronic’s Infuse®” and The New York Times chips in with: “Spine Experts Repudiate Medtronic Studies.” The Chronicle now has: “Researchers Paid by Medical Company Missed Flaws in Its Spinal Implant, Study Finds.”


Minnesota and Gay Marriage

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: July 4, 2011 - 2:38 PM



Image credit: Wkimedia Commons

Originally published  (June 26, 2011) in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the Brainstorm Blog upon New York state's passage of the bill making gay marriage legal.


Meanwhile, back in flyover land…

Our state legislature has been taken over by the crazies.  Most of the damage has been averted by an adult governor, but nevertheless they have managed to come up with ways to get around his good sense and veto.  Putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot only takes a simple majority, which they have. They do not, thank God, have enough votes to override the governor’s veto. However, the constitutional amendment route can still be used to damaging effect. Case in point, they have passed a bill to put what is effectively an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment on the ballot for 2012.

Their bet is that homophobia will overcome good sense in Minnesota. Events in New York make me hopeful that they will lose this bet. Minnesotans seem to be finally realizing that gay marriage is not a threat and is essentially a matter of human rights. Even the younger Republicans…

Thank you, New York.


So there is no doubt: My personal opinion.  I do not speak for University of Minnesota

The Promise Scholarships at the University of Minnesota - Another Whopper?

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: June 19, 2011 - 6:15 PM



 But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep...


"Affordability for students here and at the University's four coordinate campuses remains a primary concern for the Bruininks administration. In 2009, the president announced the rebranding and expansion of the University's need-based aid strategy to include guaranteed aid for all Minnesota students from low- and middle-income families."  (source)

Here's the start of an investigation into the shell game that is the so-called Promise Scholarships at the University of Minnesota.  These have been held up as an answer to the dilemma posed by a high tuition model at the U. Supposedly students with great financial needs would be sheltered from the devastating costs of college and the resulting staggering debt loads.

The promise is an illusion.

To begin this discussion results may be found below for a cost comparison between two public universities, the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina.  These results were obtained by entering data  in forms provided by both universities on the web  to estimate the actual cost of attendance, as well as debt load.   If you'd like to try it yourself, go here and sign in as "guest."

Then fill out the forms for these colleges making sure that the so called AGI is zero, so that the student/parents are absolutely unable to contribute to the cost of education.  You should get the following numbers.  I intend to discuss them in a little more detail shortly, but the results are striking and indicate that Promise Scholarships need re-thinking.  The net cost at the U of M is $11,268 and the student/parent is expected to borrow $8,600 per year for a staggering four year debt of  $34,400.

Contrast this to the situation at the University of North Carolina where a student with the same financial resources would see a net cost of $2,700 with loans of ZERO to the student/parent. 

Some quibbles may be made over this analysis but it is obvious that something smells bad in Morrill Hall and it is not the President's fish.


 To illustrate the challenge of getting Morrill Hall to face reality, see a portion of the short video of President Bruininks being interviewed by Esme Murphy this morning on 'CCO. Truly a Five Pinocchio performance.


1. Very few universities have not seen a marked increase in applications: More than 28,000 students applied to be part of UW-Madison's freshman class in the fall, a record number and the biggest increase in at least 20 years

2. The Promise Scholarship pot of gold - $350 million - at 5% will yield $70 per student based on an enrollment of 25,000 undergrads.

3. President Bruininks has the chutzpah to claim: "The quality of education is better now today than it has been in any of the 42 years that I have been at the University of Minnesota."


There is plenty of evidence to counter the President's claim, for example:

a. "As for commitment to quality education at an affordable cost? Meaningless drivel. The administration has flatly failed on its promises of excellence and affordability." Daily (13 Oct 2009)

b. "Davis-Blake said that quality is going down because the quality of the student experience has declined, which is related to uncontrollable central costs. At the Carlson School, they have fewer TAs, fewer classes, more students in classes, the building is less clean, there are fewer advisers, they have more adjuncts, and they have less information technology. All of these things are happening." Former Carlson School Dean Davis-Blake who has left for Michigan.

There will be more on this in due course. We have a lot of work to do at the University of Minnesota so that we can be an institution of which the state can be proud.  I hope the next administration does a much better job and re-establishes our land grant priorities.

However it is important to face up to our problems and not try to sweep them under the rug. This strategy has been a dismal failure.



Perhaps Now Would Be A Good Time To Re-evaluate Plans for the University of Minnesota's UMore Park?

Posted by: Bill Gleason Updated: May 15, 2011 - 7:33 AM

Mining for sand and gravel, image: Wikimedia Commons

Now that gravel mining has been put off at UMore Park and considerable discussion has occurred recently by the agricultural faculty at the University of Minnesota, perhaps taking a step back and re-evaluating the whole situation would be a good thing to do?  A real economic analysis might also prove useful...


On the Continuing MoreU Park Fiasco Is the University of Minnesota a Land Grant Institution?
MoreU Park The Public be Damned?
An Ag Researcher at the University of Minnesota Questions Priorities for MoreU Park
More on MoreU...
More on MoreU Sunshine is the best disinfectant...
Exactly how long is the UMore Park craziness going to continue?


Part I. Are We A Land Grant Institution or A Gravel Mining and Development Corporation?

Senate Research Committee
Monday, April 25, 2011

"Professor Linn, Head of Animal Science, said that his department has conducted research on land at UMore Park for over 50 years, including with sheep, dairy and beef cows, and swine, and at present it has research facilities for turkey and beef cattle. Their research facilities are on the edge of the area where the proposed gravel mining will start. They have expressed concern all along about the loss of agricultural land and their animal facilities."

"What is key for them, Professor Linn said, is replacement of the facilities. There has been no discussion of the loss or replacement. This is a multi-million-dollar problem. Second, this is a primary turkey-producing state, but they have no idea what the effect of mining will be on the research facilities. They bring in $300,000 – 500,000 per year to support the facilities the research facilities at UMore Park, and the impact of the mining has to be addressed."

"The land is their laboratory, Dr. Braun explained, and UMore Park turns their labs into a gravel mine. The value of the lab far exceeds the value of the gravel mine. They have asked for alternative land but are skeptical that will be provided with the kind of land that is needed."

"The University is abdicating its land-grant mission, and he[Professor Baker] does not know of another land-grant school that does not have land close to its campus to train undergraduates. To sell off an asset to pay for operations is like selling one's kidney to pay for groceries, he said, which is why they are so upset with the plans for UMore Park."

"The land that has been suggested as an alternative is not equal to what they have now, Professor Orf said, nor does it have the millions of dollars of infrastructure (storage sheds, irrigation, and laboratories for threshing and storage of plants, etc.) that currently exists in the land they use. There was great concern about the impact of the light-rail trains on research on the Minneapolis campus; they have the same concerns about the dust and equipment storage and safety of the people working at their sites."

Professor Hutchison, the Head of Entomology, said that his department still has active research at UMore Park and they have not seen enough consultation with faculty members; he thanked the Committee for hearing about their concerns. Their faculty see these recent discussions as re-arranging deck chairs on the "Titanic."

"A number of faculty members (23) in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) wrote to the Board of Regents in July, 2010 to express their concerns. The Regents wrote back to respectfully disagree about the quality of the land and the lack of a farm for the University."

"Dr. Becker also noted that when the University received the land at UMore Park after WW II, University Agronomists and Soil Scientists conducted surveys and determined the agricultural plots needed to be where they are because most of the landscape at UMore Park was disturbed in building the munitions plant. Topsoil and subsoil were mixed or significantly altered, rendering those areas wholly unsuitable for research other than reclamation research. We cannot just move onto other lands impacted by the plant construction. "

They and others have been doing studies for ten years or more and will not be able to continue because of the gravel dust. E.g., photosynthate measurements will be erratic and altered because of widespread gravel dust deposition.

These sites encompass the entire Agronomy farm research areas, and he would not want to be around them, nor would he want his students working on the land near them. Dust, noise, VOCs from the asphalt plant, conveyors transporting rock overhead, and heavy equipment traffic - they cannot co-exist. The take-home message is that the University has to acquire new land in the area. As Dr. Al Levine, Dean of CFANS put it; it is like taking buildings down on campus and making no alternative arrangements for the faculty who were housed in them.

Professor Linn said that the Regents' letter indicates the plans will go forward even though most faculty members on the St. Paul campus oppose them. Dr. Braun reported that the gravel mining has been postponed because of the economic situation (an 80% decline in the demand for gravel), which buys them time to explore alternatives, such as mining on the east side and not disrupting the agricultural land.

Professor Vaughan asked if the Regents made the decision without consulting the faculty. Essentially they did, Professor Baker said. The Board was led to believe there would be additional discussions about what would serve the research needs of the faculty, but those discussions have not taken place.

Professor Linn said that from the time the process started and all along, they have said that what is going on there is not acceptable. There will be mining and a new community; the key issue is the lack of responsibility for agricultural research that has been there for 50 years. They are not looking at the importance of how to replace that land—the focus has been on the mining and the new community.

Dr. Braun reported that it was in March 2010 that agricultural researchers were informed about the plans for UMore Park. Many had no idea anything was being planned, even though UMore Park had been in the works for years.

The implication is that Vice President Mulcahy talked about the cost of relocating the NMR machines because of the light rail trains, which involved a cost in time and expense, including the effect on graduate students. One would have thought they would have had similar relocation costs as part of the UMore Park project, but apparently they did not, which reflects a misunderstanding of the research enterprise.

The argument was that things cannot go on like they have been, Professor Cleary said. What does that mean? That the value of the land and gravel outweighs the value of the research? Professor Orf said that, per Professor Baker, some of this research has a history and it would take 15 years to get back to the same point. Will NSF provide funding for another 15 years? That is not likely. Professor Cleary said he could not understand the negative views about the agricultural research being done on the UMore Park land.



These are merely excerpts.  There is even more horrible stuff available where that came from.



Part II.  Follow the Money

My fellow University of Minnesota alumnus, Michael McNabb comments on the situation:

Recent discussions have confirmed concerns about the UMore Park development.  The gravel pit will be located on land that has been used for agricultural research that has produced hundreds of millions of dollars for the economy of Minnesota.  See the remarks of the professors from the College of Food, Agricultural & Natural Resources Sciences at the April 25, 2011 meeting of the faculty research committee at More On MoreU Park.

In July 2010 the Regents dismissed the concerns expressed by CFANS faculty members about the decision (already made) to transform UMore Park.  At that time the Regents were under the impression that the gravel pit would generate $3 million to $10 million in revenue per year.  That projection by senior administrators was wildly unrealistic.  See Section 1 of University Inc. Part II.  

See UMore Park Craziness for a partial list of the numerous consultants who have received part of the $9.3 million (and counting) that the administration has spent planning the development of UMore Park.  Note that there is not a single consultant from the fields of agriculture or veterinary medicine.  (The Vet School has an entire farm at UMorePark.)  It appears that the senior administrators and the Regents made the decision on UMore Park without consulting either the professors who were engaged in research on the land or any agricultural economists!

The decision of the administration on UMore Park fails to recognize the essential value of agricultural research for a land grant university:

CFANS is a college devoted to solution-driven science; we use critical and innovative thinking plus all the tools of the arts and sciences to make our planet a productive, friendly, and sustainable environment--to solve everyday problems.  We study the health of the land and the health of the living.”

See the message from the Dean on the University of Minnesota web site.




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