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.
(Page 2 of 3)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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
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.
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.