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Oil-spill research funds begin to flow

September 1, 2011 By Mark Schrope This article courtesy of Nature News.

BP's post-spill research initiative is underway in the Gulf of Mexico.

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BP's Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) announced today the first long-term grant recipients in its multimillion-dollar fund to support oil-spill research in the Gulf of Mexico. Eight consortia, all headed by Gulf-state universities, will receive a portion of US$112.5 million over the coming three years. The initiative promises to distribute a total of $500 million in Gulf research funds between now and 2020.

Scientists are encouraged by the influx of funding for Gulf research, which typically receives less than $10 million a year in US government funding. "In the past, after a big spill was over, almost everybody lost interest so there have not been a lot of strong follow up studies," says Ed Overton, a marine chemist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and a member of a funded team. "I am very optimistic that a lot of good research is going to come out of this."

The winning groups will study the environmental effects of the spill, and work to develop improved methods and technologies for responding to future oil spills.

Troubled waters

BP established the GRI in May 2010, about a month after a wellhead on the company's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig burst and began dumping oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Initial plans to staff the managing board with scientists from outside the Gulf region brought objections from some politicians and researchers, so BP expanded the board to include members appointed by state governments. BP pays board members for their time, but gives them leeway to establish the programme as they see fit.

Within the first few months, the board distributed roughly $50 million in block grants to states affected by the spill and to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to use for research as they saw fit. But it took another eight months for the GRI to establish plans for long-term funding.

For most of that time, the board, led by former National Science Foundation head Rita Colwell, maintained almost complete public silence about the group's progress. This reticence frustrated scientists anxious for a crack at the massive pool of funds, and raised concerns that critical data were being lost as they waited to begin work. In June this year, the GRI board distributed $1.5 million to fund some time-sensitive research during the gap. They also plan to announce soon the details on about $7.5 million in additional funds that will be available each year to individual researchers.

In April 2011 the GRI board made its first request for proposals, calling on researchers to form multi-university consortia to address five specific research priorities. These range from investigating the physical fate and environmental impact of oil and dispersants to development of spill response technologies.

Researchers from the eight groups will address all of these priorities but one, which calls for "scientific research integrating results from the other four themes in the context of public health". Colwell says this is because no fundable proposals were received in this area. The NIH is, however, funding spill-related public health research, supported in part by its initial GRI block grant.

Funded researchers will be exploring habitats ranging from coastal marshes to deep-sea coral reefs in the vicinity of the blown-out well, which was about 1,500 metres deep. Among other issues, researchers will explore how oil and dispersants behave in deep waters — a subject many felt would have been better studied during the spill — and oil and dispersant impacts on everything from coastal insects to commercial fisheries.

Raymond Highsmith at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and head of a consortium that won just over $20 million in GRI funds, is encouraged by the initiative. "I'm sure it will mean a considerable advance in knowledge of the Gulf," he says. "Hopefully our collective work will result in less chaos and less confusion next time about where the oil might go and how it might behave."

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