Published: Friday, July 16, 2010,
For the last few weeks, BP has been offering signing bonuses and lucrative pay to prominent scientists from public universities around the Gulf Coast to aid its defense against spill litigation.
BP PLC attempted to hire the entire marine sciences department at one Alabama university, according to scientists involved in discussions with the company's lawyers. The university declined because of confidentiality restrictions that the company sought on any research.
The Press-Register obtained a copy of a contract offered to scientists by BP. It prohibits the scientists from publishing their research, sharing it with other scientists or speaking about the data that they collect for at least the next three years.
"We told them there was no way we would agree to any kind of restrictions on the data we collect. It was pretty clear we wouldn't be hearing from them again after that," said Bob Shipp, head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama. "We didn't like the perception of the university representing BP in any fashion."
BP officials declined to answer the newspaper's questions about the matter. Among the questions: how many scientists and universities have been approached, how many are under contract, how much will they be paid, and why the company imposed confidentiality restrictions on scientific data gathered on its behalf.
Shipp said he can't prohibit scientists in his department from signing on with BP because, like most universities, the staff is allowed to do outside consultation for up to eight hours a week.
More than one scientist interviewed by the Press-Register described being offered $250 an hour through BP lawyers. At eight hours a week, that amounts to $104,000 a year.
Scientists from Louisiana State University, University of Southern Mississippi and Texas A&M have reportedly accepted, according to academic officials. Scientists who study marine invertebrates, plankton, marsh environments, oceanography, sharks and other topics have been solicited.
The contract makes it clear that BP is seeking to add scientists to the legal team that will fight the Natural Resources Damage Assessment lawsuit that the federal government will bring as a result of the Gulf oil spill.
The government also filed a NRDA suit after the Exxon Valdez spill.
In developing its case, the government will draw on the large amount of scientific research conducted by academic institutions along the Gulf. Many scientists being pursued by BP serve at those institutions.
Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs lawyer who specializes in environmental law, said that he sees ethical questions regarding the use of publicly owned laboratories and research vessels to conduct confidential work on behalf of a private company.
Also, university officials who spoke with the newspaper expressed concern about the potential loss of federal research money tied to professors working for BP.
With its payments, BP buys more than the scientists' services, according to Wiygul. It also buys silence, he said, thanks to confidentiality clauses in the contracts.
"It makes me feel like they were more interested in making sure we couldn't testify against them than in having us testify for them," said George Crozier, head of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who was approached by BP.
Richard Shaw, associate dean of LSU's School of the Coast and Environment, said that the BP contracts are already hindering the scientific community's ability to monitor the affects of the Gulf spill.
"The first order of business at the research meetings is to get all the disclosures out. Who has a personal connection to BP? We have to know how to deal with that person," Shaw said. "People are signing on with BP because the government funding to the universities has been so limited. It's a sad state of affairs."
Wiygul, who examined the BP contract for the Press-Register, described it as "exceptionally one-sided."
"This is not an agreement to do research for BP," Wiygul said. "This is an agreement to join BP's legal team. You agree to communicate with BP through their attorneys and to take orders from their attorneys.
"The purpose is to maintain any information or data that goes back and forth as privileged."
The contract requires scientists to agree to withhold data even in the face of a court order if BP decides to fight such an order. It stipulates that scientists will be paid only for research approved in writing by BP.
The contracts have the added impact of limiting the number of scientists who're able to with federal agencies. "Let's say BP hired you because of your work with fish. The contract says you can't do any work for the government or anyone else that involves your work with BP. Now you are a fish scientist who can't study fish," Wiygul said.
A scientist who spoke to the Press-Register on condition of anonymity because he feared harming relationships with colleagues and government officials said he rejected a BP contract offer and was subsequently approached by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a research grant offer.
He said the first question the federal agency asked was, "'is there a conflict of interest,' meaning, 'are you under contract with BP?'"
Other scientists told the newspaper that colleagues who signed on with BP have since been informed by federal officials that they will lose government funding for ongoing research efforts unrelated to the spill.
NOAA officials did not answer requests for comment. The agency also did not respond to a request for the contracts that it offers scientists receiving federal grants. Several scientists said the NOAA contract was nearly as restrictive as the BP version.
The state of Alaska published a 293-page report on the NRDA process after the Exxon Valdez disaster. A section of the report titled "NRDA Secrecy" discusses anger among scientists who received federal grants over "the non-disclosure form each researcher had signed as a prerequisite to funding."
"It's a very strange situation. The science is already suffering," Shaw said. "The government needs to come through with funding for the universities. They are letting go of the most important group of scientists, the ones who study the Gulf."