Tuesday, June 8, 2004
SUNY Art Professor's Use of Bacteria Prompts a Federal Investigation and an Academic Chill

An art professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo is under federal investigation after paramedics called to his home for an emergency found bacteria and laboratory equipment that he was using in his research and for a future art exhibition.

The professor, Steven J. Kurtz, called 911 one morning last month when he woke up and found his 45-year-old wife unresponsive. A medical examiner later determined that she had died of heart failure. But paramedics at his home were alarmed when they saw petri dishes -- which were later determined to contain three types of bacteria -- and the lab equipment there, as well as books on bioterrorism.

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a hazardous-materials team later arrived at the house, in Buffalo, and confiscated the equipment and bacteria, as well as several of Mr. Kurtz's books, some teaching materials, and his computer.

Although the investigation of his home is complete and county health officials have pronounced it safe, none of the material has been returned. In addition, six people, some of them colleagues of Mr. Kurtz's at the university, have received subpoenas to testify next Tuesday before a grand jury that is looking into the case.

The subpoenas cite federal law prohibiting the possession of "any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system of a type or in a quantity that, under the circumstances, is not reasonably justified by a prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purpose."

People who work with Mr. Kurtz say that the bacteria were harmless to human beings and that he was doing "bona fide research" with them and with the laboratory equipment -- a device that extracts DNA from food. Mr. Kurtz is a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, which calls itself "an artists' collective that produces artwork to educate the public about the politics of biotechnology." The group has sponsored museum exhibits on genetic engineering and genetic modification of food.

Mr. Kurtz was using the bacteria for research on biological warfare and bioterrorism that was aimed at starting a public dialogue on the subject through art, said his colleagues.

In an e-mail message, the professor declined to talk to The Chronicle. But his lawyer, Paul J. Cambria, said the professor "feels the government is overreacting."

"We don't know at this point for sure whether or not their overreaction is solely a result of the times, or whether it is because of a disagreement with his message, or a combination of the two," Mr. Cambria said.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, civil-liberties advocates have frequently criticized the federal government, which they say has used the threat of terrorism as an excuse to crack down on dissenting views. Earlier this year, for example, a federal prosecutor tried to use a subpoena to gather information about people who had attended an antiwar rally at Drake University (The Chronicle, March 5). Also this year, Army intelligence officers grilled people at the University of Texas at Austin about a conference on Islam held there (The Chronicle, March 26).

Paul Moskal, a spokesman for the FBI's Buffalo office, said agents had spent 36 hours searching Mr. Kurtz's home after obtaining a criminal search warrant. They took "samplings of unknown material" that they had found in the home and sent them to a state health laboratory. Mr. Moskal would not identify the material as bacteria, but he said the lab determined that Mr. Kurtz had correctly described the material to officers.
The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York did not return telephone calls seeking comment on Monday.

Steve Barnes, a Web designer at Florida State University and a member of the Critical Art Ensemble, said the case had sent a chill through academe and among artists who do work like Mr. Kurtz's.
"The investigators have enough information to know that he's not linked to any activity other than the arts scene," Mr. Barnes said. "So essentially they're telling him there's no room for amateur science, and unless you're a government researcher you have no business having this stuff."

Mr. Barnes said that the DNA-extraction machine can be purchased on eBay, and that the microbes Mr. Kurtz had were "Biosafety Level 1 bacteria, which basically means it can be used in a regularly trafficked area."
According to the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists, laboratories suitable for work with Biosafety Level 1 organisms are like those typically found in high schools.

The College Art Association, a professional society for artists, art scholars, and institutions, is drafting a letter supporting Mr. Kurtz, and artists and academics are planning a demonstration outside the the federal courthouse in Buffalo during the grand-jury hearing.

Adele Henderson, who heads the art department at SUNY-Buffalo, said the idea that Mr. Kurtz was engaged in illegal activity is "absurd." She said the university had hired him precisely because of his controversial work. Art professors, she said, often keep their supplies and projects at home because the university does not provide them with studio space.

Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education