Oil spill rewrites the rules of research

Staff WriterAugust 5, 2010 

As he cares for oil-slicked sea turtles fished out of the Gulf of Mexico this week, N.C. State University veterinarian Craig Harms will take the usual blood, tissue and oil samples.

But he won't be able to analyze them anytime soon.

Harms is temporarily part of a four-member NCSU oil spill recovery team funded by a grant from BP, the oil company responsible for the giant spill. And BP has made clear that Harms can't analyze the research materials at this point because they may be relevant during legal proceedings.

"We've collected some valuable samples, but everything we collect is considered evidence. So we don't have the usual academic freedom. We feel a bit stifled," said Harms, speaking this week from Gulfport, Miss. He is on his second trip to the Gulf Coast since the April 20 oil spill.

Harms' relationship with BP illustrates the ethical dilemma facing scientists with expertise in areas of the environment, animal care, the sciences and even public policy who have headed to the Gulf this summer.

Generally, scientists are free to publish the findings of their research. But the oil spill, a sort of privately owned natural disaster, is unusual enough that the rules are being rewritten on the fly.

"This event has a responsible party - BP - so it really is a brand new disaster paradigm on how research is collected and data is used," said Bill Gentry, director of the community preparedness and disaster management program at UNC-Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health.

In recent months, faculty members at Gulf Coast universities have been offered paid consulting gigs with BP requiring confidentiality agreements that some researchers feel are too restrictive.

Harms' situation is different. His team was tapped by a collection of government agencies coordinating the cleanup and billing BP for it. The NCSU team would not have otherwise had access to the dozens of dirty, injured sea turtles they're treating.

And the animals are Harms' primary concern. The loss of potential research data is a secondary issue.

"What we're doing primarily now is clinical work, and we're not being stifled in any way," said Harms, who usually works from NCSU's Center for Marine Science and Technology in Morehead City. "It's not compromising the care of the turtles. That's the main reason we're doing what we're doing."

A BP spokesman said the company encourages independent research but occasionally restricts research findings by hired consultants if it affects pending litigation or if the work addresses specific business needs.

"Where carried out collaboratively with federal and state agencies, no constraints will be placed on publication of results," said the spokesman, Mark Salt. "Where carried out for BP-specific purposes, there are likely to be confidentiality constraints."

What are the tradeoffs?

In the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, federal dollars customarily help finance cleanup and relief efforts, including those done by university researchers. But the oil spill is BP's responsibility, so scientists have to weigh whether to take private money to engage in research or recovery efforts, said Gentry, of UNC-CH.

"The funding would be good, but the tradeoff is how you could use the data," he said. "All the data would belong to BP. That really handcuffs a scientist."

No UNC-CH scientists are receiving BP grant money for cleanup work, as Harms' group is doing, a spokesman said. And officials at both campuses said they know of no faculty members hired to do the sort of BP research consulting work some Gulf Coast scientists have considered.

New research avenues

For many Triangle scientists, the oil spill has opened new research avenues. Local researchers have flooded the Gulf looking to help out and establish short- and long-term learning opportunities.

At Duke, the Nicholas School of the Environment has sent scientists to collect samples and to talk to locals. Curtis Richardson, director of the Duke Wetlands Center, is trying to develop a program with some Louisiana communities that his students can visit on a regular basis.

"It is an opportunity," he said. "You can't beat real-world experience."

NCSU public policy professor Thomas Birkland also expects the oil spill to keep him busy, on and off, for years. Birk land is an oil spill expert by virtue of his study of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, about which he has written extensively.

And Rick Luettich, who directs UNC-CH's Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, spent much of the summer using computer models to predict where the oil might go. He received funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security to do so and was part of a research team that briefed congressional committees on the potential impact of a hurricane on oil-laden waters.

He hopes his work will do some good.

"You look for silver linings in dark clouds like this, and this is a silver lining," Luettich said. "I think the oil spill is an opportunity to advance our knowledge. We gained a lot from it."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

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