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Oil spill challenges research universities

BP contract workers perform regular maintenance on containment booms in the Bay of St. Louis June 2. An unknown substance that appeared in the bay on Sunday alarmed residents concerned it was from oil from the Deepwater Horizon. Test results on the substance have not been returned. (AP Photo/Sun Herald, John Fitzhugh)

BP contract workers perform regular maintenance on containment booms in the Bay of St. Louis June 2. An unknown substance that appeared in the bay on Sunday alarmed residents concerned it was from oil from the Deepwater Horizon. Test results on the substance have not been returned. (AP Photo/Sun Herald, John Fitzhugh)

Scientists asked to do a lot with a little

 

Scientists at Mississippi’s four public research universities find themselves on the front lines of the oil spill battle. Researchers are being asked to collect data on everything from the effects on wildlife and plants to the socio-economic impact. 

Yet, it could not have come at a worse time for the scientists. The universities were already coping with dwindling budgets from state funding cuts. In addition to money concerns, the universities are currently running short-handed.

“The timing is terrible for us,” said Dr. Gordon Skelton, director of the Center for Defense Integrated Data at Jackson State University (JSU). “During the summer, many researchers are working projects out in the field. Also, students are not in class. So, we don’t have a lot of researchers on campus right now.”

Dr. Alice Clark is chair of the Mississippi Research Consortium (MRC), which was formed in 1986 to coordinate work conducted at the state’s four public research universities — JSU, Mississippi State University (MSU), University of Mississippi (UM) and University of Southern Mississippi (USM). In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion April 20, MRC offered its research and educational capabilities, and to ensure rapid and coordinated response, created the MRC Deepwater Horizon Response Team (DHRT). Two researchers from each university serve on the DHRT,

Clark, who is also vice chair for research and sponsored programs at UM, echoed Skelton. Researchers had work they were conducting April 19, just to wake up the next day and find priorities had to be shuffled.

“Suddenly, there were all these research needs, and questions on how those projects were going to be funded,” she said.

Researchers cannot simply shift funding from one project to another. Money is earmarked for specific research projects. Using it for oil spill or any other research is prohibited.

“That’s called misappropriation of funds,” Skelton said.

Some oil spill-specific funding has arrived. Earlier this month, BP released $25 million in research grants to study the disaster, with $10 million of that going to the Northern Gulf Institute, which is based at the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. The group is led by MSU, but no other Mississippi universities are members.

NGI director Dr. Mike Carron called the award “the tip of the iceberg” in a recent interview with the Sun Herald. He pointed out that funding for this type of research historically has gone to other areas of the country, leaving the Gulf underserved.

“But, there’s a lot going on now in the Gulf of Mexico, billions of dollars worth of seafood industry, the oil industry. All of a sudden, we’re on the radar screen for more funding in the future,” Carron said.

The problem is, research is needed now, and the cash-strapped universities are feeling squeezed.

“We have gotten verbal promises from the Governor’s Office and IHL (State Institutions of Higher Learning,” Skelton said. “But, I’ve been told (by JSU leadership) not to take on projects without something in writing. I can’t afford to spend, say, $100,000 with no guarantee that I’ll see any funding.”

Despite the lack of resources, research is underway, led in large part by USM. The university already had assets on the Coast before the oil rig explosion, particularly the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. Researchers there were equipped and ready April 20 to study the oil spill and its impact.

USM was also first to put a business cost to the oil spill. Earlier this month, it released a study that found the Gulf of Mexico oil spill will cost Mississippi’s coastal counties nearly $120 million in lost tourism and service industry revenues this summer season.

USM has also been collaborating with other state universities. For example, USM and UM, both members of the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology, are monitoring the environmental impact at the spill site. USM is also working with MSU on research related to land-ocean-atmosphere interactions.

In the mean time, JSU is working to be a repository for all of the research data, ensuring the data is complete and accurate. This work is not only crucial today, but for tomorrow as this research will be used as evidence in future oil spill-related lawsuits.

The state’s researchers did get some positive news recently when USM announced it had hired Dr. Denis Weisenburg as its new vice president of research. Weisenburg, a Pascagoula native who previously served as chair of USM’s Department of Marine Sciences for 10 years, returns to USM from the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. He has worked five oil spills during his career, including the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

“Denis Weisenburg is the right person, at the right time, in the right place. I can think of no better suited to evaluate the oil spill at the macro level,” said USM president Martha Saunders.

Clark said she hopes one positive comes from the oil spill and the needed research. She said it shows that the state’s researchers are working every day on projects that are not just information for scientific journals, but also have real-world applications.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Hank Bounds said, “Mississippi universities employ some of the best minds in the world. By working together within our system, and with other higher education systems in affected states, we can help find practical solutions to the problems that could follow this devastating oil spill.”

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