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‘You’re dirty, Ace, and I’m patient’

August 5, 2018

Martin Hackworth

“I can’t touch you, I know that, too many obstacles, too many politics. But you’re dirty, Ace, and I’m patient.” — Sonny Crockett, “Miami Vice”

Last month the Journal revealed the existence of several federal investigations into ISU’s failed RISE program. For those of you who are not up to speed about RISE, ISU created the Research and Innovation in Science and Engineering Complex in 2011 with the promise of creating a world-class research institute that would benefit not only ISU but our entire region through commerce and job creation.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a university attempting to foment a useful partnership between research and commerce. I’m all for that and I am far from alone. When it works it’s a win-win. What was curious about RISE was the astonishing degree to which it duplicated already well-established ISU programs — notably the Idaho Accelerator Center.

There were early warnings that things might not be entirely on the up and up at RISE. An extremely optimistic projection for rapid progress, for instance, in fields where advances are generally painstaking and occur only after years of effort, the lack of meaningful involvement and oversight from on-campus peers and finally that Director Eric Burgett was in my opinion inexperienced and largely unqualified to helm such an ambitious project.

Despite all of this, and over plainly-stated objections from critics, ISU officials seemed confident beyond reason that RISE could produce miracles overnight. ISU officials, in a series of untethered-to-reality press releases, proclaimed advances in science and technology that were just around the corner at RISE. One of the biggest was the acquisition of a large accelerator from ScanTech — a company previously known for work in homeland security applications.

In the immediate post 9/11 era there was a veritable panic over the danger of terrorists acquiring fissile materials for low-grade nuclear weapons or dirty bombs. In this politically charged environment the federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars on various technologies intended to detect the presence of bomb materials in shipping containers or other methods of bulk transport. None of these technologies were shown to work very well, and the few that did suffered from effects of scale (not so great at the large distances and timescales required to effectively interrogate en masse for bad stuff).

The ScanTech accelerator was a legacy of such a program. Not only was it unsuitable for its intended purpose, it wasn’t much good for anything else either. Nonetheless ISU eagerly accepted the donation of the machine — something that had many of us scratching our heads — with promises of marvels to come. Burgett had close ties with ScanTech prior to the donation of the accelerator, according to ISU.

As time passed without any apparent success at RISE questions went unanswered by Burgett and other ISU officials. Unlike every other research function at ISU, RISE officials reported, after a time, directly to the vice president for finance and administration. That, all by itself, ought to have been a gigantic red-flag to anyone who cared about integrity in research. It was to some people, just not to enough.

Now in the fullness of time, the level of debacle at RISE having been fully revealed — student employees getting paid in cash (when getting paid at all), obvious conflicts of interests, no research of any merit accomplished, and alleged financial discrepancies — ISU officials seem content to blame all of this on a couple of bad actors and just move along. It seems like federal authorities may have different ideas. Good for them.

It will be interesting once those federal investigations are completed to see just who is implicated for the RISE’s problems. The number of times various ISU officials made their way to my office to roll their eyes about RISE while asking me to stop writing about it was astonishing. Putting a stop to things like this was supposed to be part of your jobs, not mine, and commiserating about it in private falls well short of fulfilling this responsibility.

I understand the frustration that the family of Lynn Roberts, the former university business officer at RISE, must feel. I agree that Roberts is probably the low-hanging fruit being groomed for a fall. I hope that the authorities investigating RISE instead set their sights on bringing to justice those who really deserve it in this matter.

All I would say to Lynn Roberts is that information in any potential criminal investigation is a valuable commodity. If it were me I’d be contemplating the immortal words of Monty Hall, “Let’s make a deal.”

Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time happily raising three children, llama farming, and riding mountain bikes and motorcycles.

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