Oil Debate Spills Into Academe

July 20, 2010

Within three days of the BP oil spill, Joe Griffit was out in the Gulf of Mexico taking water samples to begin assessing the damage. As an assistant professor of coastal sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, Griffit says he’s been eager to assist in the restoration efforts taking shape in the region. So when lawyers representing BP came to Griffit with an offer -- help us assess the damage and find a way to restore what’s been destroyed -- Griffit says the option was “initially very attractive” to him and some of his colleagues.

“If we were on the inside, we knew we could have some effect on BP,” says Griffit, who is stationed at the university’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, in Ocean Springs, Miss. “And after talking with some of the lawyers involved, we all saw it was a nice idea.”

Griffit now thinks he was perhaps a bit “naïve.” After a single three-hour meeting with BP representatives several weeks ago, Griffit and several other professors resigned from consulting positions they’d held only briefly. The faculty members began feeling anxious about the appearance of siding with BP, particularly when company officials mentioned that the professors would probably be called to testify on the company’s behalf as lawsuits inevitably unfold.

“We’re all employees of the state of Mississippi, and none of us really felt comfortable about testifying on the other side -- even if what we said was scientifically accurate,” Griffit says.

News of BP’s efforts to secure the consulting services of university faculty spread rapidly over the weekend, following a report in the Press-Register of Mobile, Ala., that provided details from contracts being offered to scientists. The newspaper said it obtained a copy of such a contract, noting that the agreement restricted consultants from discussing or publishing their research for at least the next three years.

At a time when many have already accused BP of low-balling or playing down the extent of the oil spill’s impact, many denounced the notion of professors gathering potentially damaging data for the company and letting BP sit on it for years.

“The idea that some scientists are willing to be bought off has caused quite a stir, and I guess the other thing is people don’t think too highly of BP trying to do that,” says Bob Shipp, head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama.

The debate surrounding professors working for BP is not dissimilar from concerns often raised about professors conducting paid drug research for pharmaceutical companies. The fact that BP is pursuing faculty members who work sometimes within eyeshot of the spill's impact, however, appears to have given the conversations additional intensity.

A number of professors have backed out of their agreements with BP in recent weeks, even before the Press-Register’s article appeared, several administrators told Inside Higher Ed Monday. The reasons vary from ethical concerns about restrictions on the publication of data to the stark realization that BP’s demands on faculty time for a project of this magnitude are simply more than a working professor can offer in good faith.

BP officials did not respond to requests for comment, nor would they answer specific questions about compensation levels for faculty or the number of professors who’ve signed on. While Griffit declined to share a draft copy of the agreement, he says he was offered something in the neighborhood of $150 an hour, adding that compensation levels “varied” with the experience of faculty.

BP’s participation in the assessment of the spill’s damage is a byproduct of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act. Set up in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, the act provides that industry officials work alongside the federal government in calculating restoration costs. While that approach has drawn critics who question whether BP’s participation is appropriate, it helps in part to explain the company’s desire to bring on additional scientists to gather data about the damage.

The oil company's overtures to faculty have placed public universities in a particularly difficult position. While universities don’t want to restrict faculty from engaging in consulting work, professors working for BP are perceived to have taken the side of the company responsible for what some are calling the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Moreover, they’ll be supplying BP with research that skeptics assume the company will spin to its advantage, as faculty are contractually obligated to remain silent.

But Chris D’Elia, dean of Louisiana State University’s School of Coast and Environment, says it’s an oversimplification to see work with BP as the only potential conflict for faculty responding to the oil spill. Federal agencies are also seeking out LSU faculty, and they have a vested interest in research that will raise the price tag on the clean-up, D’Elia said.

“You’re working for a side with a financial interest [either way],” he says. “The federal government is trying to maximize the damage assessment for obvious reasons, and the oil companies are trying to minimize it.”

“But there’s no doubt about it,” he adds. “You’re much more on the White Knight side if you’re with the feds, the aggrieved party.”

D’Elia says his preference would be for the federal government to provide a pool of money to scientists for the purposes of studying the spill's impact. Absent that, research becomes part of a legal process -- not necessarily a scientific one, D’Elia says.

D’Elia says he knows of some Louisiana State faculty who are working for the government, as well as professors working for BP in the wake of the disaster. He couldn’t say, however, whether any faculty at Louisiana State had contracts with the kinds of restrictions outlined by the Press-Register.

There’s no question that the news reports struck a nerve across academe. In response to an e-mail inquiry about the subject, D’Elia wrote “At least seven people have forwarded me this article, which has had a huge impact.” At South Alabama, Shipp became a coveted interview subject, spending his day in talks with national outlets that included NPR, the Associated Press, CNN and CNBC, along with Inside Higher Ed.

Whether the media attention given to the story will make professors think twice about working with BP is unclear, but it’s obvious universities are already thinking about the implications of working with the company. Denis Wiesenburg, vice president for research at the University of Southern Mississippi, says the university quickly ruled out becoming involved with BP on a campus-wide scale.

“We made it pretty clear from the beginning that we weren’t interested as a university in taking on that particular effort on behalf of BP,” Wiesenburg says. “We don’t obviously want to become the University of BP in this instance.”

Individual faculty members, however, are a different matter. Southern Mississippi approved all three requests from professors to work with the company, Wiesenburg says. But of those professors, two have since decided not to consult for BP.

“I assume that they felt like there were so many other opportunities for work related to the oil spill outside the BP request [and] they wanted to focus their energies on that,” Wiesenburg says.

William E. Hawkins, director of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, says professors courted by the company began hearing from colleagues that teaming up with BP might affect their future ability to secure federal and state grants. Would a scientist who provided data to BP in this instance lose credibility for future spill research funding from government agencies?

“I think everybody’s kind of feeling their way through this, and I think our researchers believed it would be better for their careers that they have access to the funding that would come through the public,” Hawkins says.

And then, of course, there’s the personal animosity some in the most affected regions feel toward BP and its handling of the disaster. For some professors, just having their names associated with the company is almost a non-starter. Take George Crozier, head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a statewide consortium in Alabama with close ties to the University of South Alabama. Crozier says he first heard about BP’s interest in faculty research partners through the university’s general counsel, who relayed an e-mail from BP lawyers interested in professors willing to “represent BP.”

“I’m going to go to my grave remembering the words that said ‘Represent BP,' ” Crozier says with a laugh.

Crozier did, however, attend a meeting between South Alabama officials and lawyers representing BP. The university laid out strict parameters for any potential partnership, including complete control over the use of data collected by faculty. They’ve not heard back from BP since.

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