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The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has served as a huge experiment. It has allowed scientists to see what oil does to the plants and animals that live in the Gulf, from sea grasses to turtles to giant blue fin tuna. But many of those scientists say their work is being held up. And as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, science delayed may be science denied.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: After the spill, scientists swarmed over the Gulf like mosquitoes at a summer garden party. Mostly they looked for bodies - birds, fish, turtles. Universities footed the bill, and the National Science Foundation provided about $20 million dollars 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?
Dr. CHRISTOPHER D'ELIA (Louisiana State University): It's a huge challenge.
JOYCE: Christopher D'Elia runs the School of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University.
Dr. D'ELIA: You know, the military talks about the fog of war. In this particular case we're dealing with sort of a fog or research.
JOYCE: In the military, there are generals. But not in ecological research. Stan Senner is with the environmental group, the Ocean Conservancy.
Mr. STAN SENNER (Ocean Conservancy): There really isn't anyone in charge.
JOYCE: 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. The act calls for research in order to assess damages against those responsible for oil spills. Because that may involve litigation, that research is largely secret.
Mr. SENNER: Dozens and dozens of studies are in the field, thousands and thousands of samples have been gathered, but that work is largely being held confidential.
JOYCE: 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 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, says secrecy sows doubt among the public.
Mr. SENNER: 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.
JOYCE: There is some money for independent, open research - the $20 million dollars from the National Science Foundation, for example. But that money runs out soon. And Christopher D'Elia points out that now is a bad time for research money to dry up.
Dr. D'ELIA: We're going to have an interesting time in the springtime, because we're 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's going to happen to the food chains, the food webs off the coast of Louisiana in particular, where the oiling was the heaviest.
JOYCE: Ironically, it's BP that has spent the most for independent open research. Shortly after the spill, BP gave several universities and research groups in the Gulf about $50 million dollars, with the promise of another $450 million dollars over 10 years.
BP and the Gulf states picked a board of scientists to decide who gets the money. Rita Colwell, a life scientist at the University of Maryland, is head of the board.
Dr. RITA COLWELL (University of Maryland): We are gathering the data to be published in the open literature and anybody can use it, private individuals, BP, federal government, anyone.
JOYCE: But the other $450 million that BP promised has not materialized. Colwell says recruiting the research board and writing ethical rules for research took a long time. 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.
And that worries scientists like 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.
Dr. DON BOESCH (Oil Spill Commission): 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.
JOYCE: Scientists say they need to be out in the Gulf 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.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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