Politics embroil gulf research grants

University professors in the gulf region responded with delight last month to BP’s pledge to put up $500 million for academic research into the Gulf of Mexico’s ecology over the next 10 years. With no significant federal grants on the horizon and an urgency to begin work, some of the academics had taken to using their own credit cards in hopes they would soon be reimbursed.

But their excitement at the windfall turned to chagrin last week after the White House ordered BP to consult with Gulf Coast governors before awarding research grants.

Elected officials in the region responded by demanding that the financial bonanza not spread beyond their own state universities, potentially leaving out such distinguished oceanographic institutions as Woods Hole in Massachusetts and Scripps in San Diego.

The political intervention has transformed the normally independent, merit-based process of matching grant money with researchers into a parochial tug-of-war for BP’s millions. The imbroglio also has galvanized scientists who bristle at the notion that elected officials could direct sophisticated academic research.

Chris D’Elia, dean of the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, said the region was replete with coastal and marine experts. But he said a restriction on which labs can participate was “foolishly constraining” of the collaborative process common among scientists.

“We have a huge amount of expertise in this environment; we know it best,” D’Elia said, sweeping an arm toward the campus hosting numerous departments that study the Gulf of Mexico and its coast. “But where our capabilities do not exist in the gulf states, there are obvious partners in the rest of the U.S. and elsewhere who should be available to us, to help as we work on this problem. It makes no sense to arbitrarily exclude those capabilities just for political reasons.”

The overlay of politics onto independent, peer-reviewed science has led some on the international advisory committee that will vet the research proposals to complain that they might walk away from the oil company’s offer.

Professor Jörg Imberger, who directs the Center for Water Research at the University of Western Australia, is one of six scientists recruited by BP to an advisory council that will determine which projects receive funds. He said he has been following the events with alarm.

“I think it’s rather unfortunate; everyone is trying to point-score through politics,” Imberger said in a telephone interview from his office near Perth. “With this message being put out loud and clear by President Obama … to be honest, what does a governor know about this? Their mandate is to bring money into their town or their state.”

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.

The BP advisory council’s leader, Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation, sought to tamp down the high-revving emotions.

“My advice to all is to stay calm,” said Colwell, a professor at the University of Maryland. “It’s very likely that the bulk of the funding will go to the gulf states. But the research money should address what is a national problem and should be addressed with the best talent available. I would hope that the governors know that. The governors and BP need to work it out the way they need to.”

A White House official defended its intrusion, saying governors in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida knew the region best. When pressed as to why elected officials should have a say in directing how private research funds are awarded, the official said that shipping traffic in the Gulf of Mexico was so busy that additional research vessels should have to clear their intended routes with the states.

The U.S. Coast Guard, however, directs sea traffic in the Gulf of Mexico.

A BP spokesman said the consultations have “slightly delayed” the timetable for rolling out the program, which has yet to solicit proposals.

Although some governors have already let their wishes be known, it remains to be seen whether BP will adopt the regional concept.

A spokesman for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said he had requested that BP direct the entire half-billion dollars to the Mississippi-based Gulf of Mexico Alliance, which brings together state resource agencies from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist has asked that BP give the state $100 million to be shared among 20 of Florida’s public and private universities. The group, known collectively as the Florida Institute of Oceanography, received an unrelated $10-million BP grant Thursday.

In Louisiana, LSU is receiving a similar $5-million grant from BP, and D’Elia said he had permission to send some of the money to other institutions.

As yet, there are no clear marching orders.

“At first there was confusion about what this means,” said Michael Carron, director of the Northern Gulf Institute at Mississippi State University, which expects to be included in future research grants. “I think the governors thought they were going to control the funds through their alliance. I don’t know. I never was told the money couldn’t leave, but there has been this feeling that I’d better be careful and ask.”

The scramble for money comes amid a dearth of funding for university research across the country. “Money has not exactly been raining down on us,” D’Elia said.

More worrisome, one gulf coast researcher said, was that he was told by a federal official that if his lab was getting BP money, the agency would not proffer routine federal grants.

Scientists here can’t afford to wait while the political ground settles. The unfolding environmental crisis wrought by BP’s multimillion-barrel oil leak requires immediate monitoring and testing — protocols that have been difficult to put in place because of budget shortfalls.

Ed Overton, an analytical chemist at LSU, is growing impatient. More than two months into the gulf oil spill and with no money to launch a research vessel to collect samples, Overton — whose expertise is investigating chemical hazards — found himself unable to study one of the most significant environmental disasters in American history.

“You know how I got my first decent water sample from the spill?” Overton asked, wedged into his cramped office on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus. " CBS and ABC news crews brought ‘em to me. They were the only ones with the money to get boats out there.”