In 1989, the T/V Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound and spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil. This incident awakened the nation to how ill-prepared we were to deal with oil spills in general and especially in cold environments. There was little information available on the affected marine environment and the invertebrate, fish, and wildlife resources in the Sound. Yet information about existing resources is critical to guide decisions about effective spill response and understand long-term impacts.
As one of numerous reactions to the spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90). Within the legislation was a mandate to create the Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI). OSRI was established to serve as a research and technology development organization, charged to provide funding to support oil-spill related research, education, and technology development projects for dealing with oil spills in Arctic and subarctic marine environments. The legislation directs OSRI to improve our understanding of the long-term effects of oil spills on the natural resources of Prince William Sound (PWS) and its adjacent waters, including the environment, the economy, and the lifestyle and well-being of the people who are dependent on them (Title V, Section 5001, Oil Pollution Act of 1990).
OPA 90 called for OSRI to be housed with the Prince William Sound Science Center (PWSSC) in Cordova, Alaska, and instructed the two organizations to share administrative functions. Funding for OSRI was initiated in 1996 and the first research funds ($200,000) were awarded in FY98. Now, OSRI has a working budget of about $1.2 million per year, gener-
ated as interest on a $22.5 million trust held by the U.S. Treasury (U.S. Coast Guard Appropriation Bill, 1996). To date, the OSRI research program has supported about $5 million of projects over the approximately five years of operation since it began making awards.1
The current OSRI research and technology development grant program focuses on three areas:
Applied Technology—to conduct research and development on new technologies for preventing and responding to oil spills in the Arctic and subarctic;
Predictive Ecology—to develop new capabilities to predict changes in populations at risk from spills; and
Education and Outreach—to make the research process interactive with the public and in general provide public information and education about oil spill impacts and response.
The OSRI Advisory Board has directed OSRI administrators to strive for a 40/40/20 split of funds among these three main program areas. OSRI funding is authorized for ten years ending in 2006, and discussions about whether it will continue are beginning.
Although OSRI’s research activities are still relatively new, the upcoming decision about its future makes this an excellent time for an independent review of the program. This report is not intended to be a project-by-project review of OSRI activities, but instead is a broad assessment of the program’s strengths and weaknesses, with special emphasis on whether the activities supported are addressing the OSRI mission, whether the processes used are sound, and whether the research and technology projects are of high quality.
Because OSRI began granting awards in FY98, this review examines a relatively brief record (FY98-FY01). In its first five years, OSRI has produced some good results and it has had some problems. Some of the problems are to be expected during the start-up phase of any new organization, such as unevenness in project quality and selection of projects somewhat peripheral to the mission. There has been a positive and ongoing evolution in policy and procedures, as experience is gained.
Because this review focuses on the OSRI research program, it deals almost exclusively with the period 1998 to present. Some sense of OSRI’s evolution and activities prior to 1998 is contained in Appendix C.
The committee believes that OSRI has supported a range of good research projects and it has the potential to become a solid (albeit small) contributor to the quest for understanding cold water ecosystems, oil spills, and their interactions. There is excellent local support and involvement, and many unanswered questions could benefit from further study. However, to be effective over the next decade, OSRI needs a new phase of strategic planning, specifically to refocus activities so they are more closely aligned with its mission. To date, OSRI has focused heavily on its modeling program. Yet OSRI could be doing much more to add to our understanding of oil and its effects on marine ecosystems, an area clearly within the OSRI mission but underserved by current programmatic emphasis. For instance, there is much to be learned about the effects of shoreline cleaners and dispersants, biodegradation, chronic effects of contaminants on nearshore flora and fauna, and long-term damage assessments. Within its technology program, OSRI is better suited for broader studies that ask “what are the best approaches for preventing and mitigating oil impacts in Arctic and subarctic environments?” rather than trying to participate in the design of specific technologies, which is very expensive and probably beyond OSRI’s capabilities and resources.
Regarding OSRI’s modeling activities, the committee is concerned about the disproportionate degree of emphasis given to model development and the strong operational focus. OSRI has limited resources and it simply cannot function effectively in a “real-time” oil spill response setting. Also, because model development is expensive, making this the primary focus will keep OSRI from supporting many other important activities.
Even more important is the fundamental question of whether OSRI should have a real-time operational role in responding to oil spills. A significant part of the Nowcast/Forecast (NC/FC) model is intended to serve as a tool used on a daily basis that would position OSRI to be of assistance in spill trajectory prediction and response. The committee concludes that it is not appropriate for OSRI to be involved in real-time oil spill response. Instead of striving for a real-time trajectory model, OSRI could fund research to develop modeling tools useful to address research questions and explore possible scenarios and responses. This approach to modeling could help people understand the system and its functions and forcings, and think about “what if.” If developed with this goal, the model would be most useful to planners, not responders.
The size and importance of the Nowcast/Forecast effort raises a related issue: the mandated 40/40/20 split among Applied Technology, Predictive Ecology, and Education/Outreach components of the OSRI program, a requirement created by the Advisory Board to build balance into the program. This was a valid attempt to steer a new program but it has
not worked as intended. It has led to some arbitrary decisions about how portions of projects are categorized and recorded. The Advisory Board should revisit this allocation mandate. They should develop a long-term strategic plan that directs the program and assures that activities support the mission.
The Predictive Ecology and Applied Technology programs are both generally responsive to the OSRI mission. Within each program, there are a few examples of activities that are not clearly directed to the mission, but overall relevance is good. OSRI’s overall portfolio appears fragmented because projects are not linked by any themes or hypotheses that tie the pieces together in support of the mission. The Advisory Board should lead a strategic planning effort to clarify the OSRI mission and how it will be addressed, with concrete milestones to guide the program.
OSRI has done limited work outside of Prince William Sound, especially in the Arctic, and while the committee is fully aware that there are many needs and unanswered questions related to oil in truly Arctic marine settings, we understand OSRI’s decision to focus on Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and the northern Gulf of Alaska: OSRI is a small program and must make choices about allocation of resources to achieve some critical mass of work. In all its work, but especially in Prince William Sound, there is a great need for coordination with other research programs (e.g., the Exxon Valdez Trustee Council’s Gulf Ecosystem Monitoring program and the new North Pacific Research Board).
The Advisory Board has had frank discussions about a number of important issues and problems and has shown a willingness to make changes and institute new procedures when necessary. The committee recognizes that the OSRI Advisory Board is composed of representatives of agencies, each with its own mission and sometimes differing needs. Because of this, the Scientific and Technical Committee (STC) is an important subsidiary body that provides in-depth scientific insight and leadership. The STC is an important part of the checks and balances of the OSRI process. It should have an active role in judging the quality and appropriateness of medium to large proposals. Term limits and clear procedures for selecting new members should be implemented to ensure that the STC remains an independent voice in the OSRI program.
Based on its meeting minutes, the Advisory Board is aware that there is a perception in the science community of conflict of interest and fairness issues within OSRI. This committee was not constituted to investigate these perceptions. However, even if this is no more than an image problem based on outdated or misinformation, the negative perceptions tangibly affect the program’s performance. They diminish the program’s appeal to qualified outside scientists and cast a shadow over its credibility.
Part of dealing with the negative perceptions about OSRI will necessitate dealing with the close relationship between OSRI and the PWSSC. These two organizations are clearly linked, and this is not necessarily inappropriate. Because OSRI and PWSSC are both small organizations, located in a small and isolated community, there are cost efficiencies to be gained by sharing staff and facilities. However, because OSRI grants significant funding to the PWSSC and because the two organizations share staff, including the director, this is fertile ground to develop perceptions of impropriety. Negative perceptions will take time to overcome, but attitudes can be changed by open communication of the mission and vision and by carefully following all procedures and policies.
Although it is a small program within the larger scientific context and it has some problems that need to be addressed, OSRI is doing good work and it is an important influence in Cordova, Alaska, and the surrounding region. Some of its educational programs deserve special recognition for building strong community partnerships. Regarding the Education and Outreach program, the activities generally are a valuable contribution to the overall OSRI program and should be continued, with emphasis that they have clear links to communicating information about oil spills and their prevention, response, and effects.
There is a fundamental ambiguity about whether research priorities at OSRI flow “top-down” or “bottom up,” and this confusion is at least in part why some outside scientists are skeptical of the fairness of the organization’s procedures. Is OSRI a fund-granting institution that allows the scientific community to drive the direction and mixture of projects (through the proposal process) under the general guidance of the mission, staff, and Advisory Board? Or is OSRI management responsible for developing a directed science plan that they then implement through directed procurement of specific projects and products? OSRI is now primarily operating in the latter mode. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, and neither is inherently better than the other. However, it is likely that many in the science community, as well as other stakeholders, believe that the first approach is what was intended by the authorizing legislation.
If the “top-down” approach is a deliberate choice, OSRI needs to articulate this clearly and honestly, to avoid misunderstandings and disenchantment by proposers. Accordingly, OSRI should be aware that this approach poses the risk of leading to a program that, overall, appeals primarily to the stakeholders at the table and not the broader community in general. It may be that this dilemma is behind the difference of opinion (explored in depth in Chapter 7) about the value of OSRI’s modeling efforts: this component is a highlight to many OSRI decision makers, but this committee believes that the current emphasis on real-time spill
response capability is inappropriate and perhaps duplicative of other efforts.
These issues should be addressed by the OSRI Advisory Board. It should consider whether it is effective and fair to appear to manage a broad solicitation process when most degrees of freedom are proscribed, and if it prefers the program to be under the strong direction of management, whether there is an adequate mechanism to set priorities and vet ideas.
In summary, OSRI has made considerable progress in its first years, maturing in many ways and resolving some early problems. But this is a critical juncture—a time for evaluation and movement in new directions. The OSRI Advisory Board should play a key role in leading OSRI through a careful strategic planning effort, thus ensuring that the organization has a clear focus in the future.