BP re­search funds to stay close to home

An agree­ment nears to al­low gulf state gov­er­nors to al­lo­cate the $500 mil­lion.

Los Angeles Times - - The Nation - Neela Banerjee re­port­ing from washington

‘The ideal would have been that any and all ex­perts would have been wel­come to study the gulf spill, and it’s pos­si­ble … that won’t hap­pen.’

— Lisa Su­a­toni, of the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil

With its well fi­nally shut down, BP is close to agree­ment on fun­nel­ing a promised $500 mil­lion in re­search funds through an or­ga­ni­za­tion over­seen by Gulf Coast gov­er­nors, not the nation’s sci­en­tific com­mu­nity.

The pend­ing de­ci­sion has stirred con­cern among some sci­en­tists who fear most of the money will be doled out to in­sti­tu­tions in the gov­er­nors’ home states — in ef­fect mak­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of re­search grants more like pork-bar­rel projects, rather than pure sci­en­tific pur­suits.

Crit­ics worry the ex­per­tise of dis­tin­guished oceano­graphic or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Woods Hole Oceano­graphic In­sti­tu­tion in Mas­sachusetts and the Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy in Cal­i­for­nia could be ex­cluded from the com­plex task of de­ter­min­ing the full ef­fects of the mas­sive spill.

In late May, BP an­nounced that it planned to give $500 mil­lion over 10 years for in­de­pen­dent sci­en­tists to study the ef­fects of the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon dis­as­ter on coastal ar­eas and the ocean. The com­pany said at the time that grants would be con­trolled by an in­de­pen­dent ad­vi­sory board of sci­en­tists it would ap­point.

The grant-mak­ing process came to a halt a month later when the White House asked BP to work with the gulf gov­er­nors to de­sign the en­vi­ron­men­tal re­search ini­tia­tive.

Af­ter three months of ne­go­ti­a­tions, BP and the gov­er­nors, through the Gulf of Mex­ico Al­liance, are ex­pected to an­nounce in the com­ing days the cre­ation of the Gulf of Mex­ico Restora­tion Ini­tia­tive.

It would have an ex­panded ad­vi­sory board of 20, with half the mem­bers ap­pointed by the gov­er­nors, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple in­volved in the talks. BP and the al­liance are also ex­pected to sign a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing that sci­en­tific in­sti­tu­tions in the five gulf states would get pref­er­ence, said Bill Walker, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mis­sis­sippi Depart­ment of Ma­rine Re­sources and the state’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the al­liance.

“The re­search will be car­ried out pri­mar­ily by Gulf of Mex­ico aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions but ex­per­tise from out­side the re­gion could par­tic­i­pate, if nec­es­sary,” Walker said. “I imag­ine there will be some gaps in ex­per­tise and that folks in the gulf aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions will reach out to their coun­ter­parts wher­ever to fill those ex­per­tise gaps.”

Such a pref­er­ence would risk shut­ting out some of the best sci­en­tists on off­shore oil spills, warned some sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing Lisa Su­a­toni of the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil. “I think the con­clu­sion from this very bizarre ne­go­ti­a­tion is that sci­ence will be com­pro­mised by pol­i­tics,” she said.

“Oil spill sci­ence is a re­ally nar­row field. There aren’t many ex­perts and they’re scat­tered,” said Su­a­toni, the se­nior sci­en­tist for the coun­cil’s oceans pro­gram. “The ideal would have been that any and all ex­perts would have been wel­come to study the gulf spill, and it’s pos­si­ble that the way this is struc­tured, that won’t hap­pen.”

Given the vast amount of money be­ing of­fered, es­pe­cially at a time of strait­ened re­search bud­gets, the push to con­trol the flow of funds shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing, said peo­ple close to the talks. BP Amer­ica head­quar­ters in Hous­ton reg­u­larly gets calls from uni­ver­si­ties ask­ing how they can get a piece of the re­search pie.

Walker said the amount of money pour­ing into the gulf “will re­sult in very good study.”

From the out­set, the gov­er­nors of the five gulf states — Florida, Alabama, Mis­sis­sippi, Louisiana and Texas — pushed BP for what they con­sid­ered their fair share of the re­search money. They brought up the is­sue in a phone call with the White House, and their request was re­layed to BP of­fi­cials by ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials dur­ing a meet­ing in mid-June, af­ter which the grant-mak­ing was put on hold.

The gov­er­nors weren’t the only ones push­ing. The money at stake has high­lighted ten­sions within the U.S. sci­en­tific com­mu­nity too. Gulf Coast sci­en­tists be­lieve their in­sti­tu­tions have the ex­per­tise in coastal en­vi­ron­ments to do im­por­tant re­search, and they wor­ried about get­ting mus­cled out by larger or­ga­ni­za­tions.

But other sci­en­tists con­tend that a peer-re­viewed se­lec­tion process would have chan­neled money to those gulf-based groups, mak­ing pref­er­ences un­nec­es­sary. And some in­sti­tutes, like Scripps, al­ready have long-term projects in the gulf, even if they’re based else­where.

It ap­pears likely that at least some new part­ner­ships be­tween Gulf Coast in­sti­tu­tions and those out­side the re­gion will be formed. Al­ready, Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity and Woods Hole are work­ing to­gether.

But gov­er­nors could sway the process. Be­fore it stopped to ne­go­ti­ate with the al­liance, BP gave about $25 mil­lion to sci­en­tific teams in ev­ery gulf state ex­cept Alabama. In re­sponse, Alabama Gov. Bob Ri­ley sent a let­ter to Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Tony Hay­ward de­mand­ing the state’s fair share.

Soon after­ward, a con­sor­tium in Alabama got a $5mil­lion grant from BP.

“That’s what gov­er­nors do,” Walker said of Ri­ley’s de­mand. “They stand up for their state.”

nbaner­jee@tribune.com

Ger­ald Her­bert

IN THE FIELD: Ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist John Su­pan of Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity’s Sea Grant pro­gram checks oys­ters in his Grand Isle hatch­ery af­ter the oil spill.

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