New York Times
August 25, 2010
A Gulf Science Blackout
Baton Rouge, La. 

THE Deepwater Horizon blowout may be capped and the surface oil slick
dispersed, but the scientistsı job has just begun: hundreds of us are
working in and around the gulf to determine the long-term environmental
impact of the drilling disaster.

Although we are all doing needed research, weıre not receiving equal money
or access to the affected sites. Those working for BP or the federal
governmentıs Natural Resource Damage Assessment program are being given the
bulk of the resources, while independent researchers are shoved aside.

The problem is that researchers for BP and the government are being kept
quiet, and their data is unavailable to the rest of the community. When
damages to the gulf are assessed in court or Congress, there might not be
enough objective data to make a fair judgment.

Transparency is vital to successful science: researchers must subject their
proposals to the scrutiny of colleagues, and publications require peer
review. When it comes to field research, scientists need equal access to the
same sites to test competing hypotheses.

But BP, which controls access to the Deepwater Horizon site and vast
stretches of the water around it, seems unconcerned about those principles.
Some suspect that the oil company is focusing its research on gathering
material to support its legal case; we canıt know for sure, though, because
researchers who get money from BP must sign strict three-year
confidentiality agreements. In any case, whatever research comes out of BPıs
efforts will be tainted by secrecy.

The damage-assessment process isnıt much more accessible. It has amassed
enormous amounts of data but offered only vague promises to make it public,
and it likewise requires confidentiality agreements from the researchers it
finances. This research will probably be used against BP in court; chances
are, then, that it will not be subject to outside scrutiny out of fear that
a weakness in the governmentıs case could be exposed.

Independent researchers like me and my team ‹ we study the effect of things
like oil and dispersants on insects ‹ have had to rely on the meager
discretionary funds provided by our university departments, particularly in
the early weeks of the disaster. And, as the weeks have rolled into months,
we have found ourselves blocked from a widening list of sites, all of which
are integral to completing our investigations.

True, the National Science Foundation has a rapid-response grant program
that has been a lifeline to independent researchers, dispersing more than
$14 million to 90 short-term research projects associated with the disaster.
My team submitted a proposal that was quickly peer-reviewed and approved,
allowing us to continue our research. But given the unprecedented nature of
the disaster, thatıs not nearly enough money.

Instead, we need a unified national research plan administered by the
National Science Foundation. It would place a priority on coordinated,
independent research, with a finance stream unconnected to BP or the
damage-assessment process. Proposals would be peer-reviewed and methods
vetted, and all results would be available for public scrutiny.

Moreover, the federal government should require that all credentialed
scientists have access to the affected sites. Without such a commitment to
independent financing and equal access, the legal process and the
rehabilitation of the gulf will be seriously undermined.

Linda Hooper-Bui is a professor of entomology at Louisiana State University.