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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 / July 3, 2010

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.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

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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.

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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.

IN PICTURES: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

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.

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