As BP recruits scientists to assess damage from its massive oil spill and provide expert testimony in lawsuits, a congressional committee is demanding to see all its spill-related research contracts, warning BP America Chairman Lamar McKay against "any effort to muzzle scientists."
An investigation by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and recent media accounts "have raised questions about the potential suppression of scientific data and analysis concerning restoration of the Gulf of Mexico," said a letter to McKay by committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D- Beverly Hills) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of an energy subcommittee.
"The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is not a private matter.... Mitigating the long-term impact of the oil spill will require an open exchange of scientific data and analysis," they wrote.
Two California congresswomen, Lois Capps (D- Santa Barbara) and Lynn Woolsey (D- Petaluma), called on BP last week to turn over management of its $500-million Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to the National Academy of Sciences "to ensure that research proposals are evaluated using a rigorous peer review process."
The British oil company has confirmed that it has hired more than a dozen scientists with gulf expertise.
Some scientists have complained publicly that the lucrative contracts bar them from releasing their findings for three years, but BP spokesman Steve Rinehart said, "We have asked that they limit public discussion of the dealings they have directly with our attorneys … or the projects directly done for BP. They are free to discuss environmental or other data."
Critics of the company are eager to see the language of the contracts.
"This is only the tip of the iceberg," said Jennifer Washburn, author of "University Inc.," a book about corporate influence on research. "BP and other big oil companies have funded more than $900 million in academic research over the last decade with a disturbing disregard for independent scientific peer review. It's time for Congress to develop model contract language to protect scientific integrity."
At UC Berkeley on Friday, activists staged a protest against the university's $500-million, 10-year partnership with BP, waving signs reading " Berkeley Petroleum" and "Do you want BP pollution in Berkeley?"
Some students and faculty want the university to cancel the contract with BP, which is principally aimed at funding biofuel research.
"How can UC Berkeley justify in front of California's civil society its association with BP?" asked entomology professor Miguel Altieri in an opinion piece in the campus newspaper last week.
A university spokeswoman said corporate influence was minimal on the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute, which was set up with the heavy involvement of then-director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Steven Chu, now the U.S. Energy secretary.