Gulf oil spill: BP grants $500 million for independent research

Some experts wonder how 'independent' BP's grants for Gulf oil spill research on ecosystem damage and recovery will be. But so far, it looks like the money comes with no strings attached.

By , Staff writer

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    Patrick Hogan and Allison Ford of the International Bird Research Center evaluate an oil covered brown pelican at the Fort Jackson Bird Rehabilitation Center in Buras, La. The bird was rescued after being covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
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The first research grants from a $500-million bushel of cash BP has pledged for independent research into the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are expected to reach individual scientists as early as this coming week.

To several marine scientists, the program represents an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the effects of oil, gas, and dispersant in deep water, monitor long-term biological impact of the blow-out, and figure out new ways to restore damaged ecosystems.

Others caution that until more is known about how BP is setting up the effort, the program could be little more than the company's attempt to co-opt leading experts on issues that are bound to be raised as the federal and state governments assess damage and pursue potential civil and criminal actions against the oil giant.

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The research aspect of the spill "is extremely important," says David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington and a former chief of staff for the House Science Committee on Capitol Hill. "Are we doing enough of what we need to do to get research underway in an organized, thorough, planned-out manner over the years to come to make sure we understand what happens in cases like this?"

Questions about independence

"It will be helpful to have the money from BP – if it's used in a way that's consistent with the public interest," he adds. "But it's not independent just because someone declares it independent, especially if the person declaring is the one it's supposed to be independent from."

BP initially unveiled the program on May 24. On June 15, it announced that three institutions – Louisiana State University, the Florida Institute of Oceanography, and the Northern Gulf Institute – would receive a combined $25 million as a first installment in the decade-long program. The two institutes represent long-standing collaborations among some 27, largely university-based, marine-science programs.

The oil giant also released the names of six prominent researchers from the US, Australia, Germany, and Britain who would act as an advisory panel.

The panel is headed by Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation, who splits her time between professorships at the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University, and her post as chairman of Canon US Life Sciences.

The panel is initially tasked with overseeing a competitive selection process that would lead to the establishment of several research centers in the region, presumably at universities with expertise in marine and petroleum science. Scientists would then apply to these centers for money to support individual research projects.

Despite what appear to be layers insulating individual researchers from taking a direct hand-off from BP's paymaster, skeptics are wary.

In a letter earlier this month to BP chief executive officer Tony Hayward, for instance, NRDC executive director Peter Lehner argued that the advisory panel should be named by an organization such as the National Academy of Sciences. It also outlined two other criteria for independence, including no prohibition against BP-funded scientists testifying in court.

Lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill

Much of the angst centers on scientists' experiences during the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.

At the time, Jeffrey Short was a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration specializing in oil-contamination and other pollution issues in the region. One outcome, he says, was the establishment of the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council, set up as an independent body to distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants to study the aftermath of that environmental disaster.

"Even there, it was really difficult to secure funding for really basic questions directly related to the remaining oil," says Dr. Short, a marine scientist with the conservation group Oceana.

Such hard-to-fund questions included the amount of oil remaining, its location, and its effects on plants and animals in those areas.

"Most of the money was spent on other questions, like, how does the ecosystem work?," he says. That research is valuable, he acknowledges, "but not at the expense of answering basic questions first."

BP's advisory panel is made up of "very well-known, eminent scientists," Short continues. For all their accomplishments as marine scientists and grant administrators, panel members don't have established publication records on oil spills and their effects, he adds. That's one gap he says he hopes the panel will quickly address.

Peer review

Key indicators of how independent the panel and the overall research effort will be from BP include "the extent to which they establish a peer-review process for research proposals and the mechanism they establish for determining what the research priorities are," Short says.

In addition, environmental groups point to a lack of transparency in data Exxon-hired scientists were gathering on the spill and its aftermath – mindful that the data were ammunition in the legal fights that accompany environmental disasters.

So far, however, the signs this time are encouraging, according to scientists involved in parceling out the first $25 million in BP research cash. Louisiana State University has received $5 million of this quick-start money the oil company is releasing.

"The money came as an unrestricted block grant," says Chris D'Elia, dean of the university's School of the Coast and Environment. "We can do whatever we want with it, as long as we have a peer-review process involved. That's clearly an indication that we pretty much have carte blanch to do what we feel is necessary."

The school has made it clear that BP is free to suggest studies "because it's closest to the situation," D'Elia adds. Moreover, it's likely that outside scientists and BP will have some set of questions in common that they'd like to see addressed. "But BP is not compelling us to follow their guidance" and the school does not view any BP suggestions in a way that requires the university's scientists to follow BP's lead.

BP's hands-off approach even applies to reporting requirements that usually accompany research grants, adds Michael Carron, chief scientist for the Northern Gulf Institute, a research consortium involving five regional universities but with ties to a range of research organizations from the European Space Agency and NOAA to other universities spread throughout the US and Canada. The institute is administering $10 million in BP quick-start money.

"Normally, if we get a grant from NOAA, we send them a bill every month, how many hours of work, and so on," he says. BP basically gave us the money, no strings attached. There's no pre-approval on the research we're going to fund. And there's no pre-approval on any of the publications" of results.

Publishing the results

In fact, he adds, BP requires that the results be published in refereed journals.

Although BP is asking for a heads-up on the publication date when research results have been accepted for publication, or when data are released to the public, "there is no intellectual-property requirement at all. No pre-reviews, no pre-approvals, nothing."

That's not to say BP didn't raise the issue of pre-publication review in discussions about the quick-start money, Dr. Carron acknowledges. But when the company raised the point, "the scientists said: We won't take the money."

The big question, however, is the extent to which these principles are extended to the remaining $475 million.

Indeed, several researchers say they are at least as wary of political hands skewing research priorities as they are of any BP fingerprints on the results.

The day BP announced it's intention to dole out the quick-start money, the White House announced BP's agreement to set up a $20 billion escrow fund to offset economic damage to the Gulf Coast from the blow-out. At the same time, the Obama administration required BP to work with state governments in the region in determining how the research money will be spent.

Now, says one long-time marine scientist, is looks as though BP's research money "has been co-opted by the Gulf coast governors."

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