Sham competition?

It is hoped that five finalists aren't competing for a federal biosecurity laboratory that ends up going to a sixth player that wasn't even supposed to be in the running.

Maybe it’s all part of standard government procedure, but after all the fanfare surrounding the site selection for a new federal biosecurity laboratory, it was a little stunning to learn that none of the five “finalists” might get the nod for the project.

A site at Kansas State University is one of the finalists for the National Agro- and Bio-Defense Facility, or NBAF. In July, the Department of Homeland Security, announced five finalists for the lab, and competition for the opportunity to replace the current lab on Plum Island in New York was launched.

During a public meeting to gather input on the project last week, however, Kansas officials learned that sometime after the five finalists were announced, a sixth option was added: refitting Plum Island and keeping the lab there.

This was a surprise – and, no doubt, a disappointment – to Kansas officials, who, like their counterparts in other states, have been pulling out all the stops to attract this project. NBAF was proposed to become the nation’s first integrated animal and plant research center with the capability to handle human pathogens and would be a great economic driver in the field of biosciences.

Sites in Mississippi, Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia were chosen by Homeland Security to advance to the next phase of the competition. The finalists all were told that they were vying to replace the Plum Island facility, which was constructed in 1954 and no longer met the nation’s needs.

Now, however, federal officials have included Plum Island on a list of alternatives for the project and will include it in the environmental impact phase of the process. There also is a “no action” alternative, under which no new facility would be built.

A representative of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said last week that the senator is confident that Plum Island will not be selected for the project. Perhaps keeping that site in the selection process is simply a formality or a courtesy, but it’s a bit demoralizing to other sites that are working hard and spending considerable money on an effort to attract this facility to their states.

Of course, five laboratories won’t be built; some states will be disappointed. But it’s one thing to lose the project in a competitive process and something else to learn that all the finalists were competing for a prize that federal officials just decided not to award.