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Scientists Balk at BP Recruitment Efforts, Restrictive Contracts

Last Thursday, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) blasted BP for its "chilling" practice of slapping restrictive confidentiality agreements on the university scientists it has hired to study the oil spill.

In an editorial in Inside Higher Ed, Cary Nelson, the national president of the American Association of University Professors, writes:

... the work these scientists do will essentially belong to BP, which will be free to suppress it or characterize it in any way it chooses. Faculty members under contract to BP, meanwhile, would be unable to testify against the company in court and would be available to testify on the company's behalf. Several faculty members in the area have confirmed to the American Association of University Professors that they have been offered contracts by BP in exchange for restrictive confidentiality clauses. A notably chilling provision directs contracted scientists to communicate through BP's lawyers, thus raising the possibility that research findings will be constrained by lawyer-client privilege."

BP's efforts to court scientists and then restrict their ability to report results were first revealed by a 16 July story in the Mobile, Alabama, Press-Register.

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.

A 20 July article in Inside Higher Ed implies that such contracts are a legal strategy in the face of an impending Natural Resource Damage Assessment lawsuit, in which the government tries to recoup environmental damage by seeking money from the responsible party to fund restoration projects. Inside Higher Ed reported that a group at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg backed out of a tentative agreement "when company officials mentioned that the professors would probably be called to testify on the company's behalf as lawsuits inevitably unfold."

Nelson of AAUP called for universities to step in and ban faculty members from signing such contracts: "The decision about whether to sign restrictive contracts is not simply a matter of individual choice. It has broad implications for higher education and for the society at large."

Meanwhile, in what seems like a public relations move, BP has endowed a new chair of earth sciences at the University of Cambridge. Perhaps sensing the gift's bad timing, earth sciences department head James Jackson stated at a celebratory ceremony that BP hasn't exerted undue influence on research, despite some academicians' concerns that the affiliation could taint Cambridge's reputation. "We have found that BP's involvement in our activities has been a source of intellectual and technical input that has been entirely beneficial and has never posed the remotest threat to our intellectual independence," Jackson said. Cambridge is already home to the BP Institute for Multiphase Flow, which BP established in 2000 to study topics such as surface chemistry and how oil flows through porous rock.