Marine Scientists Seeking Standards For Gulf Oil Spill Research Much of the scientific effort that has followed the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has focused on how much oil escaped and where it's gone. But many biologists say they're puzzled by the lack of an organized research effort to measure the damage.
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Marine Scientists Seek Standards For Spill Research

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Marine Scientists Seek Standards For Spill Research

Marine Scientists Seek Standards For Spill Research

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Much of the scientific effort in the aftermath of the BP spill has focused on how much oil is in the Gulf and where it is. Biologists also want to know how that oil might affect marine life over the long term.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, some scientists say they are puzzled by the lack of an organized research effort to measure the damage.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: After the BP well blew up and jettisoned some 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida became a refuge for endangered sea turtles. The unified command team in the Gulf - BP and the federal government - rescued the turtles and cleaned them up. They sent them to Mote to recuperate.

Biologists there wanted to know if and how the oil might have affected the turtles. John Reynolds, director of Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research, was one of those scientists.

Dr. JOHN REYNOLDS (Director, Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research): Tissue samples can be acquired, but unified command governs how those tissue samples are used, by whom, and then apparently owns the data and all the information. And that ownership may last through all - it may last decades.

SIEGEL: Frustrating?

Dr. REYNOLDS: Of course it's frustrating.

SIEGEL: Other marine scientists say they share Reynolds' frustration. They know that some scientific data on the effects of the spill may become evidence in court, and they're not sure how to proceed.

The government is conducting something called a natural resource damage assessment. It paves the way for recovering damages from BP in court. The assessment comes with rules on how to conduct research. But many scientists say they don't know the rules or who's in charge.

Christopher D'Elia is dean of the Coast and Environment School at Louisiana State University.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER D'ELIA (Dean, Coast and Environment School, Louisiana State University): I am a little mystified that there hasn't been a broader scientific discussion led by the federal government to try to scope out where there is good, strong knowledge and where there is need for more information.

JOYCE: Last week, federal agencies convened meetings across the Gulf with scientists to focus on tracking the remaining oil. But D'Elia says the feds are behind the curve on long-term biological effects.

Dr. D'ELIA: It's like four months after the murder has occurred, you know, and the body is decayed and the dogs have walked off with the bones. So it's really hard to solve the mystery under those circumstances. Science planning has not been good at all.

JOYCE: Assessing the damage to the Gulf will be an expensive undertaking. So far, the National Science Foundation has spent over $17 million to get biologists out into the Gulf. BP has provided about 30 million to universities and research institutes. This is a start, but not nearly enough, say scientists. Good research takes more than money.

William Hogarth, who's dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida, says scientists need to agree on what they're measuring and how they measure it.

Dr. WILLIAM HOGARTH (Dean, College of Marine Science, University of South Florida): So that what's done off of Louisiana waters will be compatible to what we do in Florida waters. There won't be any - well, you know, comparing apple and oranges. We want to compare apples and apples.

JOYCE: Apples, in this case, being things like chemical or physical signs of oil in water, or genetic damage to fish or oil's effect on coral reproduction. If scientists measure effects in different ways, the results might not be compatible.

Steven Murawski, the scientist organizing research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says following the rules for the damage assessment takes time. He acknowledges the government has not communicated as much as many scientists would like.

Dr. STEVEN MURAWSKI (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): You know, we're trying to balance the need for - the public's desire for almost complete transparency at time scales that are almost unrealistic with our fiduciary responsibility to recover natural resource damages for the country.

JOYCE: Murawski says NOAA is moving toward a study that will examine the effects on the entire sweep of marine life in the Gulf. In the meantime, he says scientists funded by the government can discuss and publish their results. But if they take BP money for that research, they will not be asked to testify in court on behalf of the government.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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