Louisiana: The Water Institute of the Gulf has an identity crisis
The close-knit community of coastal scientists was stunned earlier this summer when the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District announced he had indicted renowned coastal hydrologist Ehab Meselhe, along with a junior associate, for allegedly stealing intellectual property—coastal modeling software—from The Water Institute of the Gulf.
To many, the charges didn’t make sense. For one thing, Meselhe, who had recently left the Baton Rouge-based institute for a faculty position at Tulane University, has an impeccable reputation, both personally and professionally. For another, Meselhe had developed the software in question—the Basin Wide Model—with funding from the state using an open-source platform. In other words, the model was public, not proprietary.
Still, it was equally surprising when, just one month later, the U.S. Attorney dropped the charges, leaving The Institute, which had blown the whistle on the scientist in the first place, with egg on its face and a lot of explaining to do.
The scandal raised a lot of questions that remain unanswered—like, why did the feds, who typically take years to carefully and methodically investigate allegations, do such a hasty, sloppy job in this case? How had The Institute gotten the FBI involved in the first place? And when was the last time the U.S. Attorney dropped charges against anyone?
But the incident also did something else: It stripped the veneer off The Institute, which, until now, has largely been shielded from criticism and lauded, locally at least, as a repository for the best coastal science in the country. In the wake of the Meselhe affair, scientists, engineers and others in the coastal community have been emboldened to ask publicly—in letters to the editor, email chains and countless conversations—what they’ve been privately whispering for years: What does The Institute do and is it really necessary?
It’s a legitimate question because the research facility has largely been funded on the public dime and, as a nonprofit organization, pays no taxes. Yet it has competed for research grants against universities and for contracts against private firms, subjecting it to criticism from academia and engineers alike. That’s not to say it has not done good work in its short life. But it has tried to carve out a space that is part academic, part government, part private sector, and as the Meselhe incident suggests, it’s not clear it really knows what it wants to be. It’s certain many in the broader community have no idea.
Institute officials maintain they’re very clear on their mission and in which sandbox they belong. Executive Director Justin Ehrenwerth acknowledges the organization is something of a hybrid but says that’s where its value comes from.
“We don’t design and engineer projects like the private sector. We don’t do the fundamental research like the people in the academic sector do so well and we don’t fund and implement projects like the government,” he says. “Our value comes from bringing together the brilliant minds from all three of those sectors in a way that we can deliver actionable science to (the state) as well as other partners.”
It sounds good, but it hasn’t been easy. The organization has faced steep challenges over the past three years, which may help explain why it reacted the way it did when it lost Meselhe to Tulane. Since early 2017:
• Revenues have plummeted, due largely to decreases in the amount of work the state sends its way. Revenues in 2017, a year The Institute finished in the red, were half what they were in 2015, and its net assets dipped below $2 million. The financial picture in 2018 was somewhat better.
• Several key researchers have left, signaling to the scientific community a loss of intellectual bench strength and prestige at The Institute, though officials dispute this categorization and point to the recent hire of a veteran UNO researcher as proof of their commitment to science and collaboration.
• It has angered some in the private sector for competing against them for contracts that are outside the immediate sphere of hard coastal science, though officials with The Institute say they now partner with multiple firms simultaneously in an effort to show they’re collaborative.
• And now, by accusing a scientist, who left for a competing institution, of stealing software it tried to claim as proprietary, it has alienated some in the scientific community, who say The Institute will be hard-pressed to attract top research talent any time soon.
“At its most basic, their niche is to help develop, house and distribute the best science, engineering and technology that we can get that is independent and credible.”
—BREN HASSE, executive director, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
Ehrenwerth and The Institute’s longtime board chairman, Kevin Reilly Jr., dismiss those criticisms, maintaining The Institute is as strong as ever and working with partners around the world in new collaborative ventures. To suggest it has “morphed into an engineering firm,” or responded to financial challenges by diversifying into other types of business is, says Reilly, patently false.
But it’s also true The Institute, has an image problem now, which Reilly, at least, acknowledges. How it deals with this as it tries to rebuild its reputation will determine its future.
Reporting for this story was based on a review of public records and interviews with The Institute, the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and conversations with 16 scientists, engineers and coastal experts, several of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
A shot across the bow
The Water Institute of the Gulf, which originally went by the acronym TWIG but has recently rebranded itself “The Institute,” was the brainchild of BRAF President and CEO John Davies, then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who was, at the time, head of the CPRA.
Federal money was pouring into the state in the years following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and there was a recognition that Louisiana had an opportunity to build on those resources and do something more than just produce coastal master plans. The vision for The Institute was to create a repository of knowledge on coastal and deltaic issues that could be applied to the specific challenges facing the state, and also exported worldwide.
“At its most basic, their niche is to help develop, house and distribute the best science, engineering and technology that we can get that is independent and credible,” says Bren Haase, executive director of the CPRA.
BRAF and the state put together a package to fund The Institute in its early years and managed to attract an impressive group of scientists, whose clout helped put the facility on the map. They included: Mead Allison, who had made his name at Tulane in the 1990s and kept a joint appointment with the New Orleans university, even while working at The Institute; Denise Reed, one of the top coastal scientists at the University of New Orleans; Clint Wilson, who ran LSU’s Center for River Studies Center and divided his time between the two entities; and, Meselhe, who left the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he was working on developing the Basin Wide Model.
The Institute’s executive director was Chip Groat, a retired researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, who had a solid, though not unblemished, reputation in the industry. He came highly recommended for the job largely because of his almost instinctive appreciation for the blend of applied research the facility was created to produce.
Despite The Institute’s stated focus on doing applied research in a collaborative fashion, it alienated some in academia early on when it went up against LSU for a lucrative grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to house the Southern Regional Climate Center, one of just seven such centers in the country. LSU had been home to the NOAA’s southern regional center for years. Why, some at the university wondered, was The Institute trying to take it from them?
In the end, the NOAA selected LSU over The Institute for the grant. But some of LSU’s coastal scientists never forgot it.
“That was perceived as a shot across the bow,” one LSU climate researcher says.
While The Institute sought research grants from time to time, with varying degrees of success, the bulk of its revenues have come from the CPRA, which has had two separate funding agreements with The Institute. The first was the deal that seeded The Institute with $10 million—$5 million that was paid by the CPRA over several years, and $5 million that came from BRAF.
The second agreement, in effect through 2027, is a 10-year contract worth up to $70 million, under which The Institute does various coastal research projects—including development of the Basin Wide Model—for the CPRA. The contract enables the CPRA to farm out work to The Institute on an as-needed basis in the form of task orders that do not have to be competitively bid.
To date, the CPRA has paid The Institute about $31 million for its work under that contract, some $17 million of which The Institute says it has spread to university partners and subcontractors.
The CPRA business enabled The Institute to grow steadily for several years. In 2015, its revenues topped $11 million, more than 75% of which came from CPRA task orders. But in 2016, the CPRA began cutting back on the amount of work it sent to The Institute—from more than $8 million in fiscal 2016 to less than $2 million in fiscal 2018. (The CPRA works on a fiscal year, July 1-June 30, while The Institute uses a calendar year so the numbers do not match exactly, but the trends remain the same.) Accordingly, total revenues for The Institute began to fall, to a low of $5.8 million at the end of 2017, about half of what they had been just two years earlier.
CPRA officials say there wasn’t any particular reason they cut back on the work sent The Institute’s way. Rather, the CPRA’s Haase says the workload ebbs and flows depending on where the agency is in the coastal master planning process.
“There are times when we’re heavy in design, times we’re heavy in planning and times we’re heavy in construction,” he says. “When we’re heavy in planning we do a lot of work with the The Institute so it just kind of depends.”
The CPRA also farms out plenty of work to other entities, including the universities, several of which, in 2017, qualified as standing contractors with the CPRA, meaning the CPRA could send them task orders in much the same way it did The Institute. In 2017, Tulane, which has a robust river-coastal science and engineering department housed in its new ByWater Institute on the downtown New Orleans riverfront signed a $5 million contract with the CPRA, while UNO, LSU and ULL signed contracts worth $3 million each.
CPRA officials say they’ve always sent work to the universities and that the contracts inked in 2017 were merely a more efficient way of doing so. Asked to explain the difference between the kinds of projects they send to the universities versus The Institute, CPRA officials say they use The Institute to tackle projects that require a more collaborative approach and involve coordinating teams of academic researchers and technicians.
Change at the top
At the same time The Institute’s revenue began declining, a couple of other important changes were taking place. In early 2017, Ehrenwerth, an attorney, was hired to replace Groat, who retired at the end of 2016. According to those familiar with the situation, The Institute’s corporate culture changed under its new executive director. Some say it became more “toxic” and hostile to science, as Ehrenwerth took a more businesslike approach and spent more resources on things like development and marketing.
Others say he brought a much-needed skill set to an organization that, from the beginning recognized it would take more than just CPRA and BRAF dollars to sustain itself over the long term.
“The idea that things changed when Justin came in was true but they needed him to go out and shake the trees, which he did, in different ways,” says one scientist familiar with the situation. “We needed to have different ways of bringing in revenue because the initial $10 million had run out.”
Also in that two-year period, The Institute lost its original batch of rock-star researchers. Wilson went back to LSU full-time to run the Center for River Studies, which had a new building and state-of-the art scaled model of the river on the Water Campus.
Reed resigned and declines to discuss the reasons behind her move. But sources familiar with the situation say her no nonsense, outspoken approach clashed with Ehrenwerth.
In early 2018, Allison returned full-time to Tulane. Though he did not return calls seeking comment, sources say his reasons were both personal—he’d always maintained his residence in New Orleans and was tired of commuting to Baton Rouge—and professional. Tulane had spent the past several years developing its new ByWater Institute and lured him back to head the River-Coastal Engineering and Science department, which is housed in the swank, downtown building.
That left Meselhe, who remained with The Institute until the fall of 2018, when he joined Allison at Tulane. Sources say he felt marginalized by Ehrenwerth, whom he didn’t think prioritized coastal science as much as he did generating revenues and helping grow the Water Campus, a research park developed by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation that is home to The Institute’s offices.
Institute officials decline to discuss Meselhe’s departure or the indictment because of the potential for civil litigation. So they cannot answer the obvious question: Did concerns over declining revenues and assets and the increased competitive threat from Tulane and it’s new ByWater Institute motivate their actions with respect to Meselhe?
Reilly cannot comment on Meselhe, but insists The Institute does not have financial problems.
“If you look at 2017, you come to the wrong conclusion,” he says. “But if you look at it over time, you’ll see there are no financial issues with the organization.”
Competition with the private sector
While officials insist they face no financial challenges and remain collaborative, The Institute has, over the past two years, pursued contracts that appear to be outside its original scope. It ruffled feathers locally by teaming up with Arcadis in 2017 to go after the contract to do a storm water master plan for East Baton Rouge Parish, which it lost to HNTB. It also competed against the private sector when it sought, unsuccessfully, the contract with the state Office of Community Development to relocate the Isle de Jean Charles coastal community, which ultimately went to a team that includes CSRS and the Center for Planning Excellence.
It has had better success with other contracts—a study for the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission on protecting the water table in Baton Rouge from salt water intrusion, and a project to do resiliency planning for the city of Houston
Reilly says that type of work is firmly within the realm of what The Institute was always supposed to do and be, and that going after those contracts doesn’t represent a departure from hard science or a competitive threat to the private sector.
“Our main line of work is applied science and from time to time there is overlap, like with groundwater or resiliency,” Reilly says. “Our hydrological models can be applied to those. The work we did in Houston, for instance, they wanted predictive models that will tell them what will flood. That is what our modeling does.”
Still, some engineers are skeptical. They note that among The Institute’s 2019 hires are former Arcadis engineers Hugh Roberts and Brent McMann. Like the NOAA grant application that bothered LSU scientists several years ago, hiring top engineering talent was perceived by some as a sign that The Institute is working against, not with, them.
“They get all these public accolades and yet they are a competitor to the private sector,” says the principal of one local engineering firm. “They’ve gotten public support to stand themselves up but then they get private-sector money.”
Ehrenwerth acknowledges this was an issue in the past but says The Institute has taken steps to combat this perception. In recent months, the organization has stopped teaming exclusively with one particular firm or team when vying for a contract. Instead, it offers itself as a partner resource to any firm or team on a given procurement, even multiple teams at the same time. As a nonprofit, he says, this is an important step and key to its role and mission.
“I heard the concerns and was made aware of the perception and we met with the (local engineering groups) and changed the way we do things,” he says. “It has been an important change, and we have done our best to be a good partner and good collaborator.”
A PR problem?
Ehrenwerth points to several other positive developments under way at The Institute that he says signal its commitment to the best available science and to collaboration. Among them:
• The recent appointment of veteran UNO researcher Ioannis Georgiou, chair of the university’s department of earth and environmental science, as director of coastal and deltaic systems.
• A Memorandum of Understanding with LSU, the LSU Sea Grant College Program, and the University of Iowa to form the Coastal-Hydrologic Consortium, which calls for collaboratively developing research projects focused on coastal-hydrologic processes that will make both coast and inland communities more resilient.
• A five-year agreement with the Israel-based Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research to collaborate on shared research initiatives.
• An agreement with Nicholls State University to formalize a working relationship with the university, the state’s “closest to the coast” institution.
“The way we have approached our work has become much more collaborative over the last two to three years, in particular,” Ehrenwerth says. “I think that is reflected in some of the remarkably talented scientists and engineers that have joined The Institute.”
There remains, however, a lingering problem among many in the scientific community, who question how The Institute will recover and rebuild from the Meselhe incident.
“They have a reputation problem,” says Don Boesch, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “This is a black mark and people don’t forget it very easily and the question now is, how do they deal with this and improve it in a positive way? They’re going to need bright people to work for them, and no one wants to go work at a place where they might get arrested.”
Reilly acknowledges The Institute has what he describes as a “PR problem,” and says it is committed to convincing the scientific community that it believes in sharing software like the Basin Wide Model developed on an open-source platform. So, how does The Institute plan to do that?
“You prove it over time,” he says. “You show your commitment to open source. That is our biggest challenge. It is not a handful of disgruntled engineering firms that think we have morphed into something we have not. … We think open source is the way to go.”
Some say the only way to signal a real commitment to change, however, is to change the leadership at the top, both at the board and staff level. Sources say experts and leaders involved in the coastal crisis from around the state are concerned about the stain from the Meselhe incident and the way The Institute handled it has negatively impacted the state’s coastal program as a whole.
Others believe The Institute is taking the right steps by moving toward the collaborative role it has always sought to play. Robert Twilley, director of the LSU Sea Grant Program, who is working with The Institute on the new Coastal-Hydrologic Consortium, says some of the recent changes at the organization have been for the better. But he says the questions over the Basin Wide Model and open source have yet to be addressed by The Institute or the state.
“There has been a transition to a much more collaborative approach with the universities,” Twilley says. “But that doesn’t take care of the fact that we’re not clear on how we deal with these contracts and who owns what model and what the CPRA’s role is, and who gets to monetize what information. None of that has been resolved. It’s been a question for a long time. It’s an even bigger deal since the Meselhe incident.”