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BP's Missing Research Money

Oil spill research
Technician Carla Culpepper studies zooplankton at Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama as part of BP-funded oil spill research.
In May, the company pledged $500 million for critical oil spill science. Then politics and parochialism got in the way.

For ocean scientists anguished about the oil gushing uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico, May 24 brought dramatic news. BP pledged $500 million over 10 years for a research program to determine the ecological consequences of the spill, with the money to be distributed through an independent panel to the "best marine biologists and oceanographers in the world."

More than three months later, however, the vast bulk of that money remains uncommitted, and it's unclear how it will be distributed. Scientists say that thanks to these delays, key research opportunities in the wake of the spill could be missed.

It might seem tempting to simply blame BP. But what happened to the research fund -- or rather, what didn’t -- is a story of how politics and bureaucracy can stall urgent scientific inquiry, even amid an ongoing national and ecological crisis.

BP’s decision to create the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GRI, was pushed for by Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. The company kick-started the program on May 24 with an initial grant to Louisiana State University. Then on June 3, more than 200 scientists assembled at LSU to outline a series of key scientific priorities in the wake of the disaster. Those included understanding the size and scope of the spill, monitoring its dispersion over time, and intensively charting its biological and sociological impacts.

"It’s not unheard of that we’ll have another spill like this as we pursue difficult-to-reach oil," says Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It sure would be nice to know where that oil goes, how much of it stays below the surface, and what it harms."

The scientists also described the sophisticated instruments they would need to deploy for tracking the oil and its effects, such as "smart" autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, heavily equipped with an array of high-tech measuring devices.

BP seemed responsive: A week later it offered grants totaling some $25 million to three Gulf institutions (LSU, the Florida Institute of Oceanography, and the Northern Gulf Institute led by the University of Mississippi). Future money, the company said on June 15, would be distributed through an independent and competitive peer-review process overseen by a distinguished scientific advisory committee. Members would include former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell and former NSF assistant director for geosciences Margaret Leinen, as well as several researchers based at institutions outside of the United States (a fact that later became a point of contention in the Gulf states). A request for research proposals would be published in the "near future," the company said, and a standard scientific process would begin to sift the best research ideas.

It all sounded great to the ocean research community. "There would be a peer review process, BP would deliver the money and allow the independent scientific process to proceed," says Robert Gagosian, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, which represents the nation’s ocean sciences research institutions.

But then politics reared its head. The next day, June 16, was President Obama’s dramatic White House meeting with BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward. The central agenda item was the establishment of a $20 billion escrow account for victims of the spill, but it appears the $500 million research fund was also discussed. In a fact sheet released after the meeting, the White House instructed BP to work with "governors, and state and local environmental and health authorities" in determining how to allocate the research money.

That made everything a lot more complicated -- and a lot more political.

Following the White House meeting, BP’s promised request for research proposals failed to materialize. Then the matter of allocating the money vanished into the equivalent of a black hole for what is now approaching three months. "I’ve been trying to find out what’s going on, and I can’t get any real answers from anybody at this stage," says Christopher D’Elia, dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at LSU.

The trouble, it appears, is that Gulf state governors wanted to ensure that research dollars went to their in-state institutions. "The southeastern states, that have been impacted by this oil spill the most, believe they’ve got the capability to do most of the research that needs to be done in the Gulf," says Mike Carron, director of Northern Gulf Institute (one of the programs that received BP funds). "And they’re really worried that if you’re not careful, the guys who always get the big research money will continue to get it." Those guys would be ocean science powerhouses such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Although the initial grants had gone to the Gulf, there was concern that a competitive peer-review process would send a lot of money elsewhere.

Even the initial grants drew political criticism. After they were announced, Alabama Governor Bob Riley wrote to BP CEO Tony Hayward on June 23: "I was surprised to see that Alabama is the only Gulf state that does not have a research entity specifically included in your initial allocation." Riley called this "unwise and unacceptable." The governor further complained that BP’s scientific advisory committee was composed of "three Americans, one German, one Australian, and one British citizen, none of whom have backgrounds in the Gulf of Mexico." Soon afterward, Alabama received $5 million from BP for its Marine Environmental Sciences Consortium.

Such moves notwithstanding, BP assured Rep. Markey that the "bulk" of its Gulf Research Initiative would be funded through a competitive, peer-reviewed process. At the same time, however, the company remained in consultation with the Gulf states -- a process that drags on to the present. Dan Turner, press secretary for Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, said there is no firm timeline for a decision about the money, and Todd Stacy, Riley's spokesman, added that the process is "ongoing" and BP is working with a partnership of the Gulf states to distribute the funds. The company did not respond to requests for comment about the research fund.

An announcement about BP’s ultimate plans could be made soon. But when it comes to studying and monitoring an oil spill, scientists say that time was, and is, of the essence. Had the process moved more rapidly, "we’d be further along with identifying long-term research proposals, and it might have meant more and different data being collected," says Ana Unruh-Cohen, a climate scientist and deputy staff director of Markey’s House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

All is not lost, adds the Consortium for Ocean Leadership's Gagosian: "The hope is that this would be a ten-year program. But you want to get this baseline data as soon as you can." The oil is changing and biodegrading, he says; scientists need to be able to track those changes and see how they’re affecting marine life throughout the water column, on the ocean floor, and on shore.

Not all research has stalled. Some BP money and a number of National Science Foundation "RAPID" grants have been distributed. For instance, BP-supported researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi are currently studying topics ranging from the effect of the spill on summer plankton and shellfish to the ability of coastal Mississippi residents to adapt psychologically to the disaster.

The problem, Gagosian says, is the lack of coordination and centralized research planning. Ideally, the BP funding would form the centerpiece of a long-term, big picture research program -- one that could have major implications for our future response to oil spills. But until plans for the money materialize, the critical chance to understand this spill better and prepare for future ones remains in limbo.

image of Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist and the author of three books, including the New York Times-bestselling The Republican War on Science -- dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, ... READ MORE >
It's so sad that this country can't get its act together and focus on what's really important to get stuff done. At this point, if essential research is being bypassed because of who gets how much money, someone needs to make a sacrifice for the greater good.