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Winter 2014 Vol. 14 Number 2



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Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, ©Michael Watkins/iStock/Thinkstock

Looking to the Future

NAS Unveils Strategic Plan for Gulf Research Program

After a year of gathering input and identifying needs in the Gulf of Mexico region, a 25-member advisory group of the National Academy of Sciences' Gulf Research Program has developed a strategic vision that describes goals, strategies, and objectives for the program and laid out a plan to guide the first five years of work.

As part of agreements settling criminal charges against the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the $500 million, 30-year research program was established to focus on human health, environmental protection, and oil system safety in the Gulf of Mexico and the United States' outer continental shelf. The advisory group decided that the program could make the most valuable contributions where these three areas intersect.

The program's duration and long-term perspective provide a unique opportunity for producing cumulative impacts and lasting benefits. Over its lifetime, the program will aim for a set of interconnected goals: to foster innovative improvements to safety technologies, safety culture, and environmental protection systems associated with offshore oil and gas development; to improve understanding of the connections between human health and the environment to support the development of healthy and resilient Gulf communities; and to advance understanding of this dynamic region to inform the protection and restoration of ecosystem services.

The advisory group identified six overarching strategies to steer the program's work. Activities should have a long-term, cross-boundary focus; explore the links among people, ecosystems, and energy development; serve community needs; synthesize and integrate data and information across disciplines; foster coordination and partnerships; and invest in leadership development and capacity building.

Starting small, thinking big. As the program receives its funds over the first six years of operation, it will initiate small, short-term activities before evolving to include a balance of short-, medium-, and long-term efforts that catalyze work across scientific disciplines, geographic borders, sectors, and perspectives.

In December, the program announced it would begin accepting applications for early-career and science policy fellowships as well as fund exploratory grants for projects that link ecosystem services related to oil and gas production to human health and well-being and those that investigate approaches for effective education and training of workers in the offshore oil and gas industry and health professions.

The program will also pursue a range of specific objectives in the first five years to support its overarching goals:

  • partnering with industry, government, and academia to identify opportunities for enhancing the safety of offshore energy development;
  • exploring decision support systems for safe and sustainable oil and gas development, disaster response, and remediation;
  • providing opportunities for research that improves understanding of how social, economic, and environmental factors influence community vulnerability, recovery, and resilience;
  • backing research to advance understanding of environmental conditions, ecosystem services, and community health and well-being;
  • fostering the development of future professionals an leaders in science, industry, health, policy, and education;
  • identifying opportunities for knowledge transfer between the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf regions; and
  • supporting activities to improve understanding and use of scientific information by the public and policymakers.

The program's areas of emphasis, research themes, and specific activities will undergo periodic review and evolve over time. It will not undertake or subsidize restoration activities or determine the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill, but rather look to the future, toward helping to prevent such disasters, minimizing adverse impacts of offshore energy production, and ensuring that the Gulf of Mexico and its surrounding communities are resilient to high-impact events and long-term changes.

-- Lauren Rugani


Gulf Research Program: A Strategic Vision. Advisory Group, Gulf Research Program (2014, 76 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-31306-3; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $19.95 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The advisory group was chaired by Barbara A. Schaal, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St. Louis.



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