Summer 2013 – Note from the Research Board Chair

(From Summer 2013 Newsletter) Dr. Rita Colwell, University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University

The Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout represents a significant ecological event. It was defined by release of millions of gallons of crude oil and application of 1.8 million gallons of dispersants, together spreading into wetlands and beaches and also sinking into the deep ocean. The ecological significance is one aspect of the tragedy. More critical is that 11 lives were lost, and hundreds of oil spill workers, coastal inhabitants, and visitors suffered exposure to the oil and dispersants.

Shortly after the spill, BP established a $500 million research fund over a 10-year period to explore impacts of the spill and provide improved understanding of the long-term ecological effects and provide better preparation for any future event globally. The scientific research enabled by this funding is progressing rapidly and effectively in a way that has rarely been possible and this is being achieved through the management and oversight of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI).

The commitment of research funds has been accomplished following guidelines for investment in five basic themes. An independent Research Board was formed to provide management and oversight for the program and these responsibilities included solicitation and selection of the best science. The framework employed provides incentive for scientists to build interdisciplinary teams and to work in close collaboration.

The goal of the GoMRI is to improve the capability of society to understand, respond to, and mitigate impacts of petroleum pollution and related stressors of marine and coastal ecosystems, with emphasis on conditions in the Gulf of Mexico. Knowledge gained will be applied to restoration and improving the long-term environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico. Operating independently of BP, the GoMRI Research Board takes action with full authority over the program during the 10 year period of the initiative. The collaborative science emerging from this initiative is very impressive. Early results are redefining the interpretation of oil spills. Although all effects of this very serious oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem may never be known to the last detail, we will certainly have valuable information to protect and restore the Gulf ecosystem.

From its very initiation, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative adhered to the established and highly respected standards of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for conduct of the scientific research. By taking advantage of the experience of both scientific organizations, the Research Board established a template for the Request for Proposals, conduct of peer review, selection of the best science, and communication of the scientific findings accurately and responsibly.

The memory of the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and its effect on the Gulf of Mexico region remains with us, but we anticipate the information provided by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative will help understand the impact and minimize the effect of any such disaster in the future.

[Back to the Summer 2013 Newsletter]