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Oil-crisis research casts USF into political waters

lpeterson@tampatrib.com
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 07:44 AM
TAMPA -

University of South Florida marine scientist Ernst Peebles knew news crews were waiting when he and his colleagues returned from a trip that took them into Gulf waters near the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The scientists had found evidence that oil from the spill wasn't only on the surface, but hovering in a potentially toxic cloud deep underwater.

In the days that followed, they were bombarded with hundreds of interview requests. Many reporters had the same question: "Are you angry at BP?"

The scientists bristle at any suggestion of an agenda. But BP denied the underwater oil existed, and USF found itself pitted against the oil giant.

It's a prickly place to be, said William Hogarth, dean of the USF College of Marine Science, based on Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg.

Academic researchers can lose their reputations, sometimes their careers, when they're caught in the collision of science and politics.

"It seems to be a growing trend, mostly in the past 10 years or so," said Jane Levy, with the American Association of University Professors.

'Climategate'

The most familiar conflicts are over the science of climate change, Levy said. Michael Mann, of Penn State University, was just cleared by a university committee of charges he manipulated data to bolster the argument that the planet is warming.

"Climategate" broke in November and made international headlines.

But other conflicts can be just as dangerous. The deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center, Ivor van Heerden, lost his job this spring after his harsh and persistent criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The university said it didn't renew his contract in an effort to save money. Van Heerden has sued, saying the university wants to silence him for fear of losing grant money.

USF marine researcher David Hollander has watched the heat go up for several years in the earth and ocean sciences.

People are realizing how climate and environmental issues affect their daily lives, he said. They want solutions, but solutions often lead to regulation and higher taxes. So the people who support and oppose those changes start fighting over the science.

The more people claiming a stake, the messier the fight.

Since the USF researchers began their inquiry into the spill damage, "it's been a bumpy road," Peebles said.

For decades, from its base in St. Petersburg, USF has been building its capacity to study the sea, developing expertise in the ocean's chemistry, movements and inhabitants.

It outfitted a one-of-a-kind research vessel called the Weatherbird II, which set out May 22 to learn more about what a University of Georgia researcher had detected in the wake of the Gulf oil gusher.

They knew it was touchy.

About a week earlier, The New York Times had reported that researchers led by Georgia's Samantha Joye had found signs dissolved oil was sinking and traveling underwater in plumes.

The administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenco, released a statement questioning reports of Joye's findings.

"Media reports related to the research work conducted aboard the R/V Pelican included information that was misleading, premature and, in some cases, inaccurate," the statement said.

Conflict drama

USF researchers spent a week in the Gulf collecting and testing water samples, and when they returned May 29, they confirmed what Joye had found.

Within two days, BP came out "with all claws" denying the findings, Hollander said.

Then about a week later, Hollander told a group of reporters that BP had resisted giving USF a sample of its oil to compare its "fingerprint" to the hydrocarbons USF had found.

The statement was a small part of a news conference to explain what the researchers learned about their water samples.

But it helped turn the research story into a conflict drama.

"I had people asking me, 'Are you going to duke it out with BP,'" Hollander said.

Some bloggers also pulled NOAA into the conflict, raising questions about its role in the recovery effort and its relationship with BP.

None of the USF researchers were threatened or told to quit talking, but federal officials let them know they were reading the stories.

"It was very subtle and polite," Peebles said.

Now, "we have this sense that we have to walk on eggshells," Hollander said, mostly because of doubts about how their statements will be interpreted.

But if there are any hard feelings from BP, they weren't evident in a recent letter confirming a $10 million grant to the Florida Institute of Oceanography, based at USF in St. Petersburg.

The letter outlined its standards for accountability and peer reviews, and it said, "BP's support shall in no way interfere with the academic freedom of the research institutions."

And the marine scientists will continue to do their work and explain what they've found, said USF spokeswoman Vickie Chachere.

"They know people have questions, and they feel a public responsibility to answer them," she said. "People have been clamoring for independent, objective information, and they feel an obligation to share what they know."


Reporter Lindsay Peterson can be reached at (813) 259-7834.

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