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Planned distribution of BP research funds worries some scientists

The oil giant nears an agreement to dispense $500 million through an alliance overseen by gulf state governors. Critics fear expertise elsewhere will be overlooked.

September 24, 2010|By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — 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 $5-million grant from BP.

"That's what governors do," Walker said of Riley's demand. "They stand up for their state."

nbanerjee@tribune.com

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