Researchers aboard the Atlantis, a research vessel operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, examine core samples brought up from the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico by the deep-sea submersible Alvin on Nov. 24, 2010. The scientific community is conflicted about the lack of direction, coordination and funding in studying the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Researchers aboard the Atlantis, a research vessel operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, examine core samples brought up from the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico by the deep-sea submersible Alvin on Nov. 24, 2010. The scientific community is conflicted about the lack of direction, coordination and funding in studying the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Richard Harris/NPR
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was, in effect, a huge experiment and scientists want to know what that oil may do to the plants and animals that live in the Gulf — from sea grasses to turtles to giant bluefin tuna.
But many of those scientists say they're frustrated at the lack of focus in this research effort as well as the shortage of money for such a huge undertaking.
After the spill, scientists swarmed over the Gulf like mosquitoes at a summer garden party. Mostly they looked for bodies of birds, fish and turtles. Universities footed the bill as did the National Science Foundation, which provided $20 million for research. The Interior Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent experts, too.
But the real gumshoe work is just beginning: Will wetlands recover? Were tiny fish eggs and larvae wiped out? Will surviving animals reproduce?
"It's a huge challenge," says Christopher D'Elia, dean of the the School of Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University. "You know, the military talks about the fog of war. In this particular case, we are dealing with a sort of fog of research."
In the military, there are generals; not so in ecological research. Stan Senner, the director of conservation science with the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, says "there really isn't anyone in charge."
True, the federal government's scientists are doing some research now, but most of that lies beneath a veil laid down by the Oil Pollution Act, which calls for research in order to assess damages against those responsible for oil spills. Because that may involve litigation, that research is largely secret.
"Dozens and dozens of studies are in the field," Senner says, "thousands and thousands of samples have been gathered but that work is largely being held confidential."
Eventually that scientific data should become public, but Senner and other scientists worry that in the meantime, gaps in the research may go unnoticed without peer review from the larger scientific community.
Senner, who worked on the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, says secrecy sows doubt among the public.
"We saw repeatedly in the case of the Exxon Valdez that the people who are most affected by the spill, if they didn't have information, it tended to feed their worst fears," he says.
Money For Independent Research
There is, however, some money for independent, open research, like the $20 million from the National Science Foundation. But that money runs out soon, and D'Elia points out that now is a bad time for research money to dry up.
"We're going to have an interesting time in the springtime," he says, "because we are about to come into the season when life starts teeming in the coastal waters, so one of the big issues that I'm concerned about is what is going to happen to the food chains — the food webs off the coast of Louisiana in particular — where the oiling was the heaviest."
Ironically, it's BP that's spent the most for independent, open research. Shortly after the spill, BP gave several universities and research groups in the Gulf about $50 million, with the promise of another $450 million over 10 years. BP and the Gulf states picked a board of scientists to decide who gets it.
Rita Colwell, a life scientist at the University of Maryland, is head of the board.
"We are gathering the data to be published in the open literature and anybody can use it, private individuals, BP, federal government — anyone," Colwell says.
But the other $450 million that BP promised hasn't materialized. Colwell says recruiting the research board and writing ethical rules for research took a long time, and the board still has not published guidelines for how to apply for money. So it could be months before scientists see any of that $450 million.
That worries scientists such as Don Boesch, who sits on the official Oil Spill Commission that's investigating the event. He says the slow start has already compromised the research effort "because we had much more limited effort to go out and actually describe the effects of the spill and track the oil when it was actually coming out of the bottom of the gulf."
Scientists say they need to be out in the Gulf right now, and they need someone to organize all independent research going on. They cite the case of herring in Alaska's Prince William Sound: Four years after the Exxon Valdez spill, scientists thought the population had recovered. But they failed to read all the signs: The population crashed, and has never recovered.