President Obama isn't best suited to determine how to spend $500 million on scientific research into the effects of the gulf oil spill. Nor is BP, which has promised to disburse the money over the next decade. Least qualified of all are the governors of the gulf states, whose positions are inherently political and whose job, among other things, is to bring more money into their respective economies.
Yet, as The Times recently reported, the White House has told BP that it must consult with the governors of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida on which institutions should receive the money, a giant windfall in the financially strapped world of academic research. The purported reasoning is that those states know the region best.
Even ignoring other possible reasons for the order — such as the Obama administration's desire to tamp down criticism in the states most affected — this is a bad call, and one that goes against Obama's frequently repeated pledge to put sound science over politics.
It may well turn out that scientists in the affected states do know more about gulf environmental issues than anyone else and should get a hefty share of the money. But that decision can be made only after a full and objective review of grant proposals. And it is best left to the nation's top experts in vetting research applications. Fortunately, the country already has the perfect agency in place for this sort of work: the National Science Foundation.
BP has imitated that model, hiring a group of respected scientists, which has not yet received any proposals. But there will inevitably be pressure on the company — and thus on the panel — to sow money in places that help repair BP's image. The science foundation is a better choice for this endeavor.
Involving the region's governors will only add parochialism to the mix. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has already asked that $100 million of the BP money be divided among 20 universities in his state. There may be some academic institutions in Florida that have the equipment, projects and brainpower to deserve large grants, and others that should get none — the funds don't have to be distributed evenly, so that no state or institution feels left out. The BP research money is supposed to pay for the best possible science to help determine both the environmental damage in the gulf and how to mitigate it.
The gulf states are owed full remuneration for the harm that they, their residents and the environment have suffered; those are decisions in which the states' governors should play a major role. As for the right people to sift research proposals, the president already has them in his employ.