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Bioterror Profs Caught in Political Spotlight

Two university professors who joined Democrat John Kerry (search) as he criticized Bush administration preparations for a potential bioterror attack said Wednesday's event was more political than they had expected.

The University of South Florida has received millions of federal dollars under President Bush in the last few years and the money has helped put the university on the cutting edge of detecting such an event.

As a result, professors Jacqueline Cattani (search) and Thomas Mason (search) found themselves explaining the delicate nature of their involvement in a political event that included a union endorsement of the Democratic presidential candidate.

"The last thing I would ever say is the present administration has not been supportive of our activity," said Mason, who runs the university's Global Center for Disaster Management and Humanitarian Action (search).

"As long as it's understood, it's not my personal politics. I am here as a public health professor," he added.

During his appearance, Kerry said there were shortcomings in the nation's readiness and in the training provided those who would be the first to respond to such an attack. He said the nation's hospitals are overburdened and would be unable to cope with the fallout of such an attack. Kerry also promised to put a single individual in charge of bioterror defense.

Kerry campaign spokesman Mark Kornblau said the event was meant to "draw upon the expertise" of the professors, and not intended to make it appear as if they were endorsing Kerry's campaign or his strategy.

"The idea was to talk about strategies to make America safer and not to score political points," Kornblau said.

Cattani, who directs the university's Center for Biological Defense, told about 300 students and local Democratic party activists that national standards and adequate equipment for emergency responders are needed.

"I wouldn't say anything different if George Bush was sitting next to me," she said.

The university's professors may participate in political events on university time as long as they don't endorse any candidate. Mason and Cattani said they were careful not to make any political statements at the event.

Mason's center, which was founded in 1998, received $2.5 million in federal funding this year for its projects. Cattani was recognized during the 2002-2003 academic year for bringing in $6 million in federal money to conduct anti-bioterrorism research and training for the Army.