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Details Revealed on BP's Funds for Continued Oil Spill Research

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Just over a year since oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's blown Macondo well, there is now a plan for distributing the biggest pot of money available to fund research on its impacts. This morning, the 20-strong Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GRI) Research Board, which oversees the $500 million fund set up by BP for independent scientific research on the spill, released its first request for proposals.

Scientists have been waiting for the document ever since an initial $50 million was distributed hastily, beginning in June 2010, to four gulf state consortia and the National Institutes of Health. BP set up the fund, known as the GRI, to provide $50 million a year over 10 years to study five themes related to oil spills: oil dispersion, degradation, environmental impacts and restoration, technologies for cleanup and mitigation, and health effects.

Known as RFP I, the funding call is intended for large collaborations between multiple institutions. Grants will range from $1 million to $7.5 million, with a total of about $37.5 million available to fund four to eight 3-year grants, said Research Board Chair Rita Colwell, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, at a press conference here this morning. The proposals will be considered via the same peer-review process used by the National Science Foundation (NSF), where Colwell served as director, with the Research Board making the final choices. Colwell said the Research Board is drafting a second RFP to award smaller grants, between $100,000 and $1 million and totaling $7.5 million, for individual researchers and small collaborations. (According to a Master Research Agreement between BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GMA)—an alliance of the governments of the five states surrounding the gulf—dated 14 March, the yearly $50 million will also cover the GRI's administrative costs.)

Language in the request for proposals strongly suggests that institutions in the gulf states—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—will be taking the lead on GRI-funded research. ("In general the Research Consortia shall consist of Research Institutions in the Gulf Coast States," begins one paragraph.) In fact, many thought that a White House edict issued in June directing BP to work with GMA state governors on the GRI was meant to keep the money within the gulf. But when asked, Colwell said that collaborations don't necessarily have to have a gulf state university on board to be considered. "It's anticipated that the gulf institutions will lead," said Colwell, but grants "will not be restricted" to collaborations that include gulf institutions.

According to RFP I's timeline, grant-winners won't be announced until 30 August; last year's funding was meant to last until June. Now scientists are worried that delays in organizing the GRI will leave researchers scrambling for cash this summer. In addition to the initial $50 million, which funded more than 150 projects, NSF has doled out roughly $19 million to more than 160 projects through its rapid response program. But that money is running out. Christopher D'Elia, the dean of the School of the Coast and the Environment at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, which received $5 million from GRI last year, says, "We've managed to plan to be a little in the field this spring," but "for the broader scientific community"—those whose NSF grants are coming to an end, for example—"this is a real problem."

Colwell has acknowledged that the GRI has been plagued with delays. In late February, she told ScienceInsider that the Research Board's roster hadn't been finalized until December; at that time, she expected RFP I to be issued within 2 weeks. When asked today what would be done to address a gap in funding, Colwell said the board would be "working out a way to address the need, if there is one, to continue research that's underway, or to initiate research that will be funded through RFP-1."

Overall, D'Elia is relieved to see the announcement. "We have a process that's going to work," he says. "The delays were just unfortunate."