[Marxism] Oil Debate Spills Into Academe
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 20 07:24:20 MDT 2010
Oil Debate Spills Into Academe
July 20, 2010
Within three days of the BP oil spill, Joe Griffit was out in the
Gulf of Mexico taking water samples to begin assessing the damage.
As an assistant professor of coastal sciences at the University of
Southern Mississippi, Griffit says he’s been eager to assist in
the restoration efforts taking shape in the region. So when
lawyers representing BP came to Griffit with an offer -- help us
assess the damage and find a way to restore what’s been destroyed
-- Griffit says the option was “initially very attractive” to him
and some of his colleagues.
“If we were on the inside, we knew we could have some effect on
BP,” says Griffit, who is stationed at the university’s Gulf Coast
Research Laboratory, in Ocean Springs, Miss. “And after talking
with some of the lawyers involved, we all saw it was a nice idea.”
Griffit now thinks he was perhaps a bit “naïve.” After a single
three-hour meeting with BP representatives several weeks ago,
Griffit and several other professors resigned from consulting
positions they’d held only briefly. The faculty members began
feeling anxious about the appearance of siding with BP,
particularly when company officials mentioned that the professors
would probably be called to testify on the company’s behalf as
lawsuits inevitably unfold.
“We’re all employees of the state of Mississippi, and none of us
really felt comfortable about testifying on the other side -- even
if what we said was scientifically accurate,” Griffit says.
News of BP’s efforts to secure the consulting services of
university faculty spread rapidly over the weekend, following a
report in the Press-Register of Mobile, Ala., that provided
details from contracts being offered to scientists. The newspaper
said it obtained a copy of such a contract, noting that the
agreement restricted consultants from discussing or publishing
their research for at least the next three years.
At a time when many have already accused BP of low-balling or
playing down the extent of the oil spill’s impact, many denounced
the notion of professors gathering potentially damaging data for
the company and letting BP sit on it for years.
“The idea that some scientists are willing to be bought off has
caused quite a stir, and I guess the other thing is people don’t
think too highly of BP trying to do that,” says Bob Shipp, head of
marine sciences at the University of South Alabama.
The debate surrounding professors working for BP is not dissimilar
from concerns often raised about professors conducting paid drug
research for pharmaceutical companies. The fact that BP is
pursuing faculty members who work sometimes within eyeshot of the
spill's impact, however, appears to have given the conversations
A number of professors have backed out of their agreements with BP
in recent weeks, even before the Press-Register’s article
appeared, several administrators told Inside Higher Ed Monday. The
reasons vary from ethical concerns about restrictions on the
publication of data to the stark realization that BP’s demands on
faculty time for a project of this magnitude are simply more than
a working professor can offer in good faith.
BP officials did not respond to requests for comment, nor would
they answer specific questions about compensation levels for
faculty or the number of professors who’ve signed on. While
Griffit declined to share a draft copy of the agreement, he says
he was offered something in the neighborhood of $150 an hour,
adding that compensation levels “varied” with the experience of
BP’s participation in the assessment of the spill’s damage is a
byproduct of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act. Set up in the wake of the
Exxon Valdez spill, the act provides that industry officials work
alongside the federal government in calculating restoration costs.
While that approach has drawn critics who question whether BP’s
participation is appropriate, it helps in part to explain the
company’s desire to bring on additional scientists to gather data
about the damage.
The oil company's overtures to faculty have placed public
universities in a particularly difficult position. While
universities don’t want to restrict faculty from engaging in
consulting work, professors working for BP are perceived to have
taken the side of the company responsible for what some are
calling the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Moreover, they’ll be supplying BP with research that skeptics
assume the company will spin to its advantage, as faculty are
contractually obligated to remain silent.
But Chris D’Elia, dean of Louisiana State University’s School of
Coast and Environment, says it’s an oversimplification to see work
with BP as the only potential conflict for faculty responding to
the oil spill. Federal agencies are also seeking out LSU faculty,
and they have a vested interest in research that will raise the
price tag on the clean-up, D’Elia said.
“You’re working for a side with a financial interest [either
way],” he says. “The federal government is trying to maximize the
damage assessment for obvious reasons, and the oil companies are
trying to minimize it.”
“But there’s no doubt about it,” he adds. “You’re much more on the
White Knight side if you’re with the feds, the aggrieved party.”
D’Elia says his preference would be for the federal government to
provide a pool of money to scientists for the purposes of studying
the spill's impact. Absent that, research becomes part of a legal
process -- not necessarily a scientific one, D’Elia says.
D’Elia says he knows of some Louisiana State faculty who are
working for the government, as well as professors working for BP
in the wake of the disaster. He couldn’t say, however, whether any
faculty at Louisiana State had contracts with the kinds of
restrictions outlined by the Press-Register.
There’s no question that the news reports struck a nerve across
academe. In response to an e-mail inquiry about the subject,
D’Elia wrote “At least seven people have forwarded me this
article, which has had a huge impact.” At South Alabama, Shipp
became a coveted interview subject, spending his day in talks with
national outlets that included NPR, the Associated Press, CNN and
CNBC, along with Inside Higher Ed.
Whether the media attention given to the story will make
professors think twice about working with BP is unclear, but it’s
obvious universities are already thinking about the implications
of working with the company. Denis Wiesenburg, vice president for
research at the University of Southern Mississippi, says the
university quickly ruled out becoming involved with BP on a
“We made it pretty clear from the beginning that we weren’t
interested as a university in taking on that particular effort on
behalf of BP,” Wiesenburg says. “We don’t obviously want to become
the University of BP in this instance.”
Individual faculty members, however, are a different matter.
Southern Mississippi approved all three requests from professors
to work with the company, Wiesenburg says. But of those
professors, two have since decided not to consult for BP.
“I assume that they felt like there were so many other
opportunities for work related to the oil spill outside the BP
request [and] they wanted to focus their energies on that,”
William E. Hawkins, director of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast
Research Laboratory, says professors courted by the company began
hearing from colleagues that teaming up with BP might affect their
future ability to secure federal and state grants. Would a
scientist who provided data to BP in this instance lose
credibility for future spill research funding from government
“I think everybody’s kind of feeling their way through this, and I
think our researchers believed it would be better for their
careers that they have access to the funding that would come
through the public,” Hawkins says.
And then, of course, there’s the personal animosity some in the
most affected regions feel toward BP and its handling of the
disaster. For some professors, just having their names associated
with the company is almost a non-starter. Take George Crozier,
head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a statewide consortium in
Alabama with close ties to the University of South Alabama.
Crozier says he first heard about BP’s interest in faculty
research partners through the university’s general counsel, who
relayed an e-mail from BP lawyers interested in professors willing
to “represent BP.”
“I’m going to go to my grave remembering the words that said
‘Represent BP,' ” Crozier says with a laugh.
Crozier did, however, attend a meeting between South Alabama
officials and lawyers representing BP. The university laid out
strict parameters for any potential partnership, including
complete control over the use of data collected by faculty.
They’ve not heard back from BP since.
— Jack Stripling
More information about the Marxism