Neither question bodes well.
But it’s particularly troubling for BP, which has been offering top dollar to scientists from regional universities if they will research the Gulf of Mexico for the company, the Mobile Press-Register has reported. BP wants to know what the spill is doing to the water and all it contains.
So do we.
However, we won’t find out because BP is requiring scientists to sign a confidentially agreement that says they will not talk about what they find, publish what they find, or share what they find with other scientists for three years.
Why three years?
Apparently, that is the time BP feels it needs to build a case against the expected lawsuit by the National Resources Damage Assessment. If the scientists find something that helps BP, the oil giant wants to add it to its defense. If the scientists find something that hurts BP’s case, then they don’t want the other side to know.
Let’s understand a few things about scientific research. While scientists may work alone or in small teams, reporting findings to the scientific community and the public in general is what scientists do. BP is offering to pay to keep scientists from doing it.
On the other hand, university scientists have frequently used university facilities over the years to do research for companies; they’re often compensated for it. In many cases, the universities also are compensated — new lab equipment and such.
In fact, many universities encourage their faculties to seek out such arrangements and reward those who do. It is one way that top scientists can make up for the difference in pay between what they earn at a university and what they could earn in the private sector.
As university budgets are cut, outside funding becomes more important.
And high on the list of sources for such funding is the federal government. And federal research grants do not usually come with such strings attached.
However, some scientists are saying the contract offers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are nearly as restrictive as BP’s. And there is also the growing conviction among scientists that if they sign on with BP, future applications for government grants may be denied.
It’s disconcerting that scientists at state-supported universities would use university labs to do research for a private company and not make that research public. There is an ethical issue here, and scientists who sign such a contract are crossing the line. Not many have, thank goodness.
It’s also disconcerting that the federal government will do essentially the same thing that BP is doing and add to it the threat (real or implied) that scientists who do not join the NOAA team might be denied grants in the future.
There is no problem with BP or Washington underwriting scientific research. But when scientists using state facilities are told that they cannot report and share their research, and that they will be penalized if they do, that is going too far.