Blacklash Grows Against BP Efforts to "Buy Up" Gulf scientists

On July 1, a video appeared on BP's website featuring renegade scientist Ivor van Heerden -- a marine specialist who was fired from LSU in 2009 when he blamed the flooding of New Orleans after Katrina on the Army Corps of Engineers' shoddy levees.

Van Heerden's gadfly role after Katrina won him fans in New Orleans, but his BP video this year -- which downplays the damage caused by the oil disaster -- has put him in the doghouse. In the video, van Heerden says that despite the "media perception out there that there's oil everywhere," in reality oil "has only come ashore in a few locations;" that marshes are doing fine thanks to their "dense roots;" and that the spilled oil itself is "very, very light" and "breaks down very, very rapidly."

All of which could be debated by reasonable scientists, but is suspect coming from van Heerden given one crucial fact: He now works for Polaris Applied Sciences, a company contracted by BP -- a relationship which a growing chorus of scholars says not only puts his impartiality in question, but also symbolizes a growing threat to academic freedom when the insights of scholars are needed most.

BP's efforts to "buy up" scientists in Gulf states was first revealed by Ben Raines of the Mobile Press-Register, who found that "BP has been offering signing bonuses and lucrative pay to prominent scientists" at coastal public universities, mostly to help the company fend off a slew of post-spill lawsuits.

In one shocking example, BP attempted to hire the entire Marine Science Department at the University of Alabama -- an offer they declined due to a host of restrictions the oil company wanted to place on the school's research.

What kind of restrictions? In a copy of the BP contract obtained by Raines, contracted scientists are forbidden from "publishing their research, sharing it with other scientists or speaking about the data that they collect for at least the next three years" (unless, presumably, it looks good on a BP video).

But the lure of $250-an-hour contracting fees proved too tempting for scientists at Louisiana State University, University of Southern Mississippi and Texas A&M, where BP contracts have reportedly been accepted.

In a follow-up dispatch, Inside Higher Ed confirmed that while Southern Miss. had "ruled out" a campus-wide commitment -- "we don't want to become the University of BP," said one official -- three of the school's researchers had been approved to do work for the energy giant.

Cary Nelson of the American Association of University Professors says that BP's efforts raise disturbing questions about the role of corporate-funded research in restricting academic freedom and the public's right to know. In a July 22 Op Ed, Nelson wrote:

Both during the immediate crisis and for an extended period as government leaders and the courts figure out how to respond to the Gulf tragedy, the work these scientists do will essentially belong to BP, which will be free to suppress it or characterize it in any way it chooses. Faculty members under contract to BP, meanwhile, would be unable to testify against the company in court and would be available to testify on the company's behalf... A notably chilling provision directs contracted scientists to communicate through BP's lawyers, thus raising the possibility that research findings will be constrained by lawyer-client privilege.

There's evidence that the widely-circulated reports about BP's research-buying efforts may be fueling a backlash. As Inside Higher Ed reports, a number of professors have "backed out" of their agreements with BP -- some over ethical concerns, others over the demands BP would put on their work time.

But it's still unclear how many researchers are being paid by BP, and the details of the contracts and who has accepted them are largely hidden from public view -- leading Nelson of the AAUP to urge the media "to join the effort to interview area scientists, gather copies of BP contracts, and publish the results":

This story needs to be told in full. Universities should also consider where the public interest lies before permitting faculty members to sign contracts that limit the free exchange of information and bar public testimony. BP itself should certainly invest in research related to the spill, but it should do so without curtailing either faculty members' free speech rights or their academic freedom.

To do anything less, Nelson argues, "could prove hazardous to all of our health."