On April 20, 2010, an explosion and subsequent fire on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. After burning for more than 1 day, the Deepwater Horizon sank in approximately 5,000 feet of water.
For the next 87 days, the well that the Deepwater Horizon had been drilling released oil into the Gulf, resulting in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history and causing serious economic, environmental, and health hazards and hardships for the Gulf region.
As part of agreements settling criminal charges against the companies held responsible for the spill—BP Exploration & Production Inc. (BP) and Transocean Deepwater Inc. (Transocean)—the Department of Justice asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to establish a new program focused on oil system safety, environmental resources, and human health in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf regions that support oil and gas production. This program, known as the Gulf Research Program, is to be supported by $500 million paid by BP and Transocean between 2013 and 2018, with the funds to be expended over 30 years, until 2043.
Given its $500 million endowment and 30-year duration, the Gulf Research Program presents an extraordinary opportunity to tackle large, complex issues at a regional scale and over the long term. It has the potential to have significant impacts.
Beginning in summer 2013, an independent Advisory Group was tasked to develop a strategic vision to guide the Gulf Research Program. The Advisory Group worked for 1 year, gathering input from individuals and organizations in the Gulf region, learning from other organizations with similar missions, and identifying needs that align with the Program’s specified mandate. The Group also planned a small number of initial, short-term activities to begin in 2014 even as further Program development continues. This document describes the Gulf Research Program’s initial focus and is expected to guide its work over its first 5 years (2015–2020), but with the recognition that the Program will evolve over time.
Mission of the Gulf Research Program
Over its 30-year duration, the Gulf Research Program will work to enhance oil system safety and the protection of human health and the environment in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf areas by seeking to improve understanding of the region’s interconnecting human, environmental, and energy systems and fostering application of these insights to benefit Gulf communities, ecosystems, and the Nation.
The Gulf Research Program’s most valuable contributions are likely to come at the intersections of its areas of responsibility—oil system safety, human health, and environmental resources. Given this context, the Program will address three interconnected goals:
Goal 1: Foster innovative improvements to safety technologies, safety culture, and environmental protection systems associated with offshore oil and gas development.
Goal 2: Improve understanding of the connections between human health and the environment to support the development of healthy and resilient Gulf communities.
Goal 3: Advance understanding of the Gulf of Mexico region as a dynamic system with complex, interconnecting human and environmental systems, functions, and processes to inform the protection and restoration of ecosystem services.
To support these goals in the first 5 years (2015–2020), the Program will pursue the following broad objectives through a variety of activities and approaches:
- Partner with industry, government, and academia to identify key opportunities for enhancing the safety of offshore energy development.
- Explore models of decision-support systems for safe and environmentally sustainable offshore oil and gas development, disaster response, and remediation options.
- Provide research opportunities that improve understanding of how social, economic, and environmental factors influence community vulnerability, recovery, and resilience.
- Support research, long-term observations and monitoring, and information development to advance understanding of environmental conditions, ecosystem services, and community health and well-being in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Support the development of future professionals and leaders—in science, industry, health, policy, and education—who apply cross-boundary approaches to critical issues that span oil system safety, human health, and environmental resources.
- Identify opportunities for knowledge transfer between the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf regions.
- Support activities to improve understanding and use of scientific information by the public and policy makers in decisions related to environmental stewardship, human health improvement, and responsible oil and gas production.
As specified in the agreements that established the Program, three broad approaches, or mechanisms, will be used: research and development, education and training, and environmental monitoring and assessment.
Strategies to Achieve Lasting Benefit
The planning process identified six overarching strategies that can steer the Program toward producing lasting benefit. These are key opportunities where the mission of the Gulf Research Program aligns with the strengths of the National Academies and where the 30-year duration and long-term perspective hold special potential for cumulative impacts.
Long-Term, Cross-Boundary Perspective. Two distinctive features of the Program are the 30-year duration and the geographic focus that extends beyond the Gulf of Mexico to also include other U.S. outer continental shelf regions. The Program will attempt to select areas of work that take advantage of a long-term perspective and result in the transfer of knowledge between the Gulf of Mexico and other offshore energy-producing regions. The Program will also encourage work across state, disciplinary, and sectoral boundaries.
Science to Advance Understanding. A fundamental purpose of the Program is to bring the best expertise in science, engineering, technology, and health to advance understanding of the Gulf region in the context of linkages among people, ecosystems, and energy development. The Program aims to encourage innovative thinking and approaches and potentially transformative science and technology.
Science to Serve Community Needs. The Program seeks to foster science that serves the needs of the region’s numerous and diverse communities, including translational research that is focused on the ways in which new knowledge can be used by the public, resource managers, program managers, community planners, and other decision makers.
Synthesis and Integration. Given the amount of data and information already available about the Gulf of Mexico, the Program envisions significant opportunities in the synthesis and integration of data and information, especially across disciplines, to produce novel insights and accelerate the translation of new understanding into action.
Coordination and Partnerships. Being one program among many operating in the Gulf region, the Program recognizes the importance of coordination to avoid duplication and leverage resources. The 150-year history of the NAS as an independent, nonprofit organization devoted to consensus building positions the Program to provide leadership and participate in efforts to facilitate coordination and build partnerships among the many groups and organizations operating in the Gulf region.
Leadership and Capacity Building. By investing in leadership and capacity building, the Program hopes to provide opportunities for academic and community leaders, state and regional decision makers, students, and institutions to develop skills, competencies, and capabilities that are needed to solve problems, spark innovation, and establish sustainable systems, economies, and communities.
Initial and Future Activities
A suite of initial, short-term activities will be announced in 2014 and funded in 2015, even while planning for larger and longer-term activities continues. The first calls for applications will be in three areas: exploratory grants, research fellowships, and science policy fellowships. A fourth opportunity related to synthesis and integration of environmental monitoring data will be offered in early 2015. The Program also expects to support expert consensus studies of value to the Gulf region, planning meetings to inform the Program’s future activities, and workshops and other mission-relevant activities.
As these initial activities get under way, in fall 2014 a new Advisory Board will take over Program development and oversight and will be charged to identify larger and more far-reaching themes and activities to achieve the Program’s goals and objectives. In 2015 the Program will use the results of three opportunity analysis workshops to begin additional activities, in the areas of training middle-skilled workers, community resilience and health, and environmental monitoring. It will begin exploratory discussions to identify a few larger, long-term activities. The incoming Advisory Board will work to determine future potential activities that address the program’s mission and objectives, align with the strengths of the National Academies, and increase the Program’s impact.
- Exploring approaches for effective education and training of workers in the offshore oil and gas industry and health professions
- Linking ecosystem services related to and influenced by oil and gas production to human health and well-being
Expected 2016 Topics:
- Innovative approaches to developing scenario planning and decision-support systems to cope with crises
- Connecting data about environmental conditions with individual and population health data to foster transdisciplinary research
- Building resilience in human and environmental systems of the Gulf of Mexico and other offshore energy-producing regions
Early-Career Research Fellowships:
Two-year fellowships for pretenure faculty, recognizing exceptional leadership, past performance, and potential for future contributions to improving oil system safety, the environment, or human health.
Science Policy Fellowships:
One-year fellowships that will contribute to leadership development and capacity building by providing recipients with a valuable educational experience at the science-policy interface.
Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship:
An existing National Academies fellowship that introduces early-career professionals to the role of science in the federal government. One fellow will be hosted each year by the Gulf Research Program for this 12-week opportunity in Washington, DC.
Integration and Synthesis of Monitoring Data Opportunity:
Applicants will be challenged to propose hypothesis-driven projects that identify and synthesize existing data related to either the deep Gulf or ecosystem services for restoration and management themes.
Education and Training Opportunity Analysis Workshop
Environmental Monitoring Opportunity Analysis Workshop
Community Resilience and Health Opportunity Analysis Workshop
Additional workshops to be determined.