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Tulane professor and prominent Louisiana coastal Scientist Ehab Meselhe, left, shakes hands with Michael Magner of the Jones Walker law firm after a press conference about the reversal by federal prosecutors who moved Monday to drop the criminal case against him and another scientist regarding a plot to allegedly steal "trade secrets" in New Orleans, La., Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

When a prominent coastal scientist decamped from the Water Institute of the Gulf in Baton Rouge to Tulane University, the standard human-resources interview did not touch on who — specifically, legally, or morally — owned the complex computer model that the scientist worked with.

“However we really need to do something before he is gone,” the HR officer wrote in an email. “Once he is at Tulane, it will be more difficult to sort things out.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Disagreement over what the Water Institute felt was its development of the computer model led to the arrest and attempted prosecution of scientists Ehab Meselhe and Kelin Hu, both now working at Tulane. The prosecution was dropped as it became clear — if anything in this muddle is clear — that the models developed with public funds ought to be public property, not “trade secrets” of the Water Institute nonprofit.

The legal scuffle exposes the difficulties of mixing economic development with public funds and scientific research.

Prosecutors found that Meselhe and Hu had acted, at the least, surreptitiously — hardly in line with their lawyers’ portrayal of them as noble and disinterested scientists. Meselhe directed Hu to copy files from the computer model before Hu left his job there, apparently without informing Hu’s soon-to-be-former employer.

What is also pretty clear is that neither Meselhe nor Hu deserved to be treated as agents of coastal science espionage by the FBI or U.S. Attorney’s Office either.

We agree that when the state coastal agency funds development of a computer model of the Mississippi River basin, that’s not a private possession of a nonprofit or for that matter a government agency, either.

We wish that life were that simple across all of government. But the reality is that governments, universities and associated nonprofit partners are in a scramble for funds. That often leads them to compete for resources in unpleasant ways.

At the same time, the mission of the Water Institute is not purely as an academic institution. The nonprofit’s leaders have said for years that its role is not only practical application of coastal science, but also to develop for Louisiana the economic potential of coastal-related engineering.

That conflict between the public-spirited and proprietary missions of institutions like the Water Institute is now on full display.

Competition can be a good thing in the research community, but it shouldn't lead to the spectacles like this.