Friday, July 16, 2010

BP, government begin bidding war for scientists

Now that the endgame approaches for the runaway Macondo well at the Deepwater Horizon site, both BP and the government are lining up big guns in preparation for the legal fight that determines liability and ultimately, what it will mean to the oil giant's bottom line.

The Mobile Press-Register's Ben Raines, who has been doing potentially Pulitzer Prize winning reporting on the spill, has a story in the Friday edition of the paper that describes how BP has been trying to retain the services of prominent scientists in preparing its defense against the coming Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) legal fight.  This assessment will be used to determine BP's ultimate financial liability for the damage caused by the spill.  From the story:

For the last few weeks, BP has been offering signing bonuses and lucrative pay to prominent scientists from public universities around the Gulf Coast to aid its defense against spill litigation.

BP PLC attempted to hire the entire marine sciences department at one Alabama university, according to scientists involved in discussions with the company's lawyers. The university declined because of confidentiality restrictions that the company sought on any research.
"We told them there was no way we would agree to any kind of restrictions on the data we collect. It was pretty clear we wouldn't be hearing from them again after that," said Bob Shipp, head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama. "We didn't like the perception of the university representing BP in any fashion."

Naturally, BP declined to answer any questions or be interviewed for Raines' story. Bob Shipp, or "Dr. Bob" as he's known in these parts, is a legend of marine biology. I sat in his classroom in 1983 for Biology 101 and considered myself lucky to have done so. Even then, Dr. Bob's classes were slap full because the man is an outstanding scientist and he teaches extraordinarily well.

From 1986 through 1994, I served on the Executive Board and Board of Directors for the Mobile Jaycees' Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, the largest not-for-profit sanctioned saltwater fishing tournament on the Gulf Coast (this year's event was cancelled, the first time in Rodeo history). Dr. Bob is the official judge of the event, and marine scientists from all over the globe descend on Dauphin Island to conduct research and rub elbows with one of the heaviest hitters in marine biology. Oh, and he also Chairs the National Marine Fisheries' Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. Knowing Dr. Bob like I do, I'm pretty sure that he was BP's first target.

But, don't let Raines' headline fool you. The federal government is playing hardball, too:

A scientist who spoke to the Press-Register on condition of anonymity because he feared harming relationships with colleagues and government officials said he rejected a BP contract offer and was subsequently approached by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a research grant offer.

He said the first question the federal agency asked was, "'is there a conflict of interest,' meaning, 'are you under contract with BP?'"

Other scientists told the newspaper that colleagues who signed on with BP have since been informed by federal officials that they will lose government funding for ongoing research efforts unrelated to the spill.

NOAA officials did not answer requests for comment. The agency also did not respond to a request for the contracts that it offers scientists receiving federal grants. Several scientists said the NOAA contract was nearly as restrictive as the BP version.

The state of Alaska published a 293-page report on the NRDA process after the Exxon Valdez disaster. A section of the report titled "NRDA Secrecy" discusses anger among scientists who received federal grants over "the non-disclosure form each researcher had signed as a prerequisite to funding."

Federal funding for research is academia's bread and butter. It allows the University of South Alabama, University of Southern Mississippi, Louisiana State University and countless others the ability to conduct research, educate students in highly specialized fields of marine biology, marine geology and oceanography.

If you don't help BP, you don't get paid. If you don't help the government, your entire program could see its funding slashed. Ultimately, both BP and the government will have their armies of scientists studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon Incident, but academic independence may be yet another victim of the Oil Spill.

Gimme some feedback in the comments.


Anonymous said...

According to Wikipedia, BP does a lot of good things. Hundreds of millions for university research. Produces 30% of the worlds solar PV panels etc. All these "I Hate BP" websites do not help anyone in the long run except the middle east and russian oil barons who will benefit from less competition from BP. The problem with saying this is that I will now get flamed by a mass of hystericals.