A Gulf Science Blackout/NYT FYI.


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 scientists’ 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, we’re not receiving equal money or access to the affected sites. Those working for BP or the federal government’s 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 can’t 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 BP’s efforts will be tainted by secrecy.

The damage-assessment process isn’t 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 government’s 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, that’s 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.