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Gulf Disaster Changes Landscape for Scientists Eager to Do Research

BP has pledged millions for research on its oil spill in the Gulf, but scientists worry about how well the money will be spent. A report says Gulf Coast governors are demanding that the money be given to universities in their own states.

At a time when some scientists are more eager than ever to gather information on the state of the Gulf, it seems their access to the Gulf is also more limited than ever. That's because the federal government has swept up the available research vessels and hired consulting firms to do the work, according to Richard Shaw, associate dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University. As a result, ship time--and direct access to the Gulf to take samples--is nearly impossible for independent scientists to come by.

"It's hard for academics to participate in the offshore component of this research," Shaw said. "It's pretty strange."

Shaw told me that he doesn't know when anyone on his staff will get ship time. His university, LSU, was recently awarded $5 million from BP to study dispersants.

The funding was awarded as part of BP's pledge to provide $500 million for research into the effects of its oil disaster in the Gulf, but issues of ship access aside, some scientists and environmentalists--even some who are receiving the funding--say politics surrounding the Gulf disaster may be influencing how the research money is being distributed, according to The Los Angeles Times.

According to the Times, the White House "ordered BP to consult with Gulf Coast governors before awarding research grants," and those governors, in turn, demanded that the money be given to universities in their own states. Chris D'Elia, dean at the same school as Shaw, told the Times that restricting funding to Gulf Coast labs was "foolishly constraining." Shaw told me that he and D'Elia have instead advocated a hybrid model--awarding money to "host" univerisities in the Gulf region, but requiring that they partner with outside experts.

BP has recruited six experts to an advisory council to decide which projects to fund. Even one of those experts, Jorg Imberger of the University of Western Australia, had concerns about politics interfering with the science. The L.A. Times again:

Imberger said the April 20 well blowout that started the nation's worst offshore spill "could bring forth a brand new era of research," and added that an edict restricting funding to researchers from one geographic area will not allow the best science to emerge.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have also chimed in with their concerns. The National Resources Defense Council has called for BP to give the money to an independent entity such as the National Academy of Sciences.

"Any less," writes NRDC's Sarah Chasis, "must be construed as BP's attempt to control the study of the catastrophe it caused in the Gulf."

Elsewhere, British scientists raised concerns this week that efforts to clean up the oil may be doing more harm than good, based on research done after Exxon Valdez. Here's Reuters:

Simon Boxall, an expert at Britain's National Oceanography Center who has helped analyze various major oil spill cleanups, said several detailed experiments had been conducted since the Exxon Valdez spill, looking at areas that were left alone, as well as at areas cleaned up chemically or mechanically.

"The chemically cleaned up areas have taken the longest to recover and they are still damaged," Boxall said. "The areas that were left alone actually recovered much quicker."

These experts also pointed out, however, that it never looks good politically for politicians to be seen "doing nothing, even though doing nothing is sometimes the best option."

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