[Marxism] Oil Debate Spills Into Academe

Louis Proyect 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 
additional intensity.

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 
campus-wide scale.

“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,” 
Wiesenburg says.

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 mailing list