Deepwater Horizon oil spill brings highly competitive researchers together as one


ST. PETE BEACH — Crowded into the ballroom of the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa, more than a hundred oil spill researchers did something researchers rarely do.

They worked together.

Academic, federal and private researchers, all in the same room Tuesday, all sharing their goals and ideas on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster. In the competitive world of scientific studies, joining hands is rare, especially when funding is at stake.

But this is no ordinary funding. With BP pledging $500 million to research and a potential BP government fine in the billions, scientists finally may get the money to fund the long-term oil impact studies they’ve long desired.

This kind of idea swap, held over coffee and muffins at a two-day conference, never would have happened during past oil spills. Researchers historically have been known to hoard data and research, careful about how and when to release their findings.

“Times are changing,” said Chris Reddy, a Massachusetts scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “This is a good thing.”

Researchers from all over the country began gathering in the hotel at sunrise for the start of the sessions, sponsored by the government and hosted by the University of South Florida. They hung posters of their various findings on oil spill volume estimates, dispersant dangers and oyster health. The ballroom soon looked like a science fair.

The conference opened with federal agency scientists welcoming those from other agencies, including universities.

“I think the general feeling is that agencies are highly competitive,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Steve Murawski told the crowd. “We get about 200 oil spills per year, and it’s very rare that the academic side gets involved.”

While it’s exciting to have the academic, government and private agencies all working on the same spill, it can create a confusing glut of information, Murawski said. This is why it’s important to work together.

“Those models that projected the oil spill reaching halfway to England, I think we really need to scratch our heads and wonder what went on there,” he said.

Reddy urged researchers to avoid sensational science.

“What’s the deal with the plumes?” he asked the ballroom. “Are they a big deal? Or is this just something grabbed on by the media that’s kind of cool-looking? I think this is going to play out in time.”

Louisiana State University’s Ed Trapido was careful when he spoke of his theories on the oil spill and its impacts on human health and socioeconomic systems. He talked about the challenges of studying certain ethnic and low-income populations and all of the chemicals that could harm fishermen, wildlife rescue volunteers and children.

But he didn’t want to talk ill of BP.

“We need to work with them,” Trapido said. “So I don’t want to paint them as the villain.”

The topic of BP funding was barely discussed during the opening speeches Tuesday. Most seemed to agree that the spill’s effects will be presenting themselves for several years to come. Studies on humans, animals, coral reef and beaches could cost billions over time.

But it could all be carried out more efficiently if scientists can share and cooperate. This theme of openness and transparency was brought up throughout Tuesday morning’s general sessions.

It’s a new step for oil spill scientists, who tend to operate quite privately. But it’s a careful transition.

After lunch, the scientists broke up into smaller, more specialized groups to discuss research gaps and long-term plans. Those meetings were closed to the public.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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