Jan. 18, 2018


National Academies’ Gulf Research Program Awards $5.3 Million to Enhance Environmental Restoration Outcomes and Improve Oil Spill Risk Assessment

WASHINGTON – The Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine today announced grant awards for seven new projects totaling $5.3 million. Five of the projects involve developing or testing new technologies or methods for monitoring or evaluating environmental restoration projects to improve future restoration efforts. Two of the projects are focused on improving the information available to decision-makers for evaluating public health risks resulting from oil spills.

This funding competition was specifically geared toward projects that would bring researchers and practitioners together to transfer knowledge and work jointly on efforts that advance both science and its application. The  two topic areas – 1) integration of monitoring and evaluation into environmental restoration projects to improve outcomes in the Gulf of Mexico and 2) improving risk-based evaluations to support a public health response to the next oil spill – were derived from the findings of two recent National Academies consensus reports, Effective Monitoring to Evaluate Ecological Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico and Using 21st Century Science to Improve Risk-Related Evaluations.

“This funding opportunity is an example of how the Gulf Research Program takes advantage of a core strength of the National Academies – to supply expert consensus on using science to address real-world problems,” said Evonne Tang, the GRP’s director of external funding opportunities. “Two recent reports on topics central to the GRP’s mission were the basis of this grant competition, and the awards direct funding toward efforts that will quickly begin to address the recommendations in those reports.”

Topic 1: Integration of Monitoring and Evaluation into Environmental Restoration Projects to Improve Outcomes in the Gulf of Mexico

“An influx of money is going to be spent on ecosystem restoration in the northern Gulf of Mexico over the next few decades as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” said Laura Windecker, associate program officer for the GRP’s Healthy Ecosystems Initiative. “However, as the Academies' report indicates, there are a lot of uncertainties remaining about the effectiveness of many restoration efforts due in large part to a lack of restoration monitoring or synthesis of existing restoration data and information. These five projects are aimed at addressing this by developing guidance and standardized methods for monitoring and evaluation of coastal restorations in the Gulf.”

The five projects awarded grants under this topic, listed in alphabetical order by project title, are:

Developing an Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Framework for Evaluating Ecosystem Service Outcomes from Seagrass Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico – $365,699
Project Director: Sarah Lester (Florida State University)
Project Team Affiliation: Florida State University
Long-term degradation of seagrass habitat by human impacts and a growing understanding of the ecosystem services benefits that healthy seagrass beds provide have made seagrass restoration a major priority for the Gulf of Mexico. However, ecosystem service benefits are rarely tracked by restoration monitoring efforts due to a lack of standardized approaches for measuring them. This project intends to address this gap using existing datasets on seagrass along the Florida Gulf Coast to develop models and metrics that can be used to link and quantify the relationship between seagrass restoration and ecosystem services. The project outputs will assist practitioners with seagrass management and restoration planning and prioritization both in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

The Efficacy of Marsh Terraces in Enhancing and Restoring Gulf Coastal Wetlands - $852,386
Project Director: Brian Davis (Mississippi State University)
Project Team Affiliations: Mississippi State University in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
Some of the greatest rates of coastal wetland loss in North America occur along the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico. One coastal restoration technique commonly used to mitigate wetland loss in Louisiana and Texas is marsh terracing, whereby ridges of sediment are constructed and planted with vegetation to help protect surrounding areas against erosion from wind and waves. Despite widespread use, past monitoring and research efforts have yielded only limited understanding about the efficacy and persistence of marsh terraces. Through close collaboration with practitioners, this project aims to address this gap and will examine past marsh terracing projects to evaluate their effectiveness as a coastal restoration technique and provide guidance on their use in future restoration efforts.

Standard Logical Models and Metrics for Gulf Restoration: Linking Project Outcomes to Economic, Health, and Well-Being Benefits for People - $1,335,798
Project Director: Lydia Olander (Duke University)
Project Team Affiliations: Duke University in cooperation with Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi and The Nature Conservancy
Billions of dollars will be devoted to restoration of Gulf ecosystems over the coming decades. However, a common framework does not currently exist for assessing and reporting on restoration progress and effectiveness across different projects and locations in order to coordinate progress toward shared, overarching environmental, social, and economic goals. This project is focused on advancing standardized measures of restoration work through a collaborative approach with practitioners, community members, technical experts, and decision-makers to develop ecosystem service logic models. These models can then be used to produce a transferable and scalable approach for measuring success and comparing outcomes across different Gulf restoration projects.

Transport Thresholds for Fine Sediment in Vegetation - $592,179
Project Director: Christopher Esposito (The Water Institute of the Gulf)
Project Team Affiliations: The Water Institute of the Gulf in cooperation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tulane University
Sea-level rise poses a serious challenge to natural resource managers as they work to retain and restore coastal marshes. Sediment transported to a marsh by a river or tides can play an important role in mitigating the effects of sea-level rise by increasing land surface elevation. At present there are no standardized data collection techniques that can be used to monitor sediment transport into and within vegetated regions, limiting abilities to measure and predict the influence of restoration efforts. This project, developed in close collaboration with coastal restoration practitioners, aims to establish a standardized data collection methodology for monitoring sediment transport within coastal wetland vegetation. Restoration practitioners will be able to use this methodology to improve predictions of marsh sustainability and better assess the effectiveness of restoration efforts.

Using Past Seagrass Restoration Projects to Inform Research and Improve the Monitoring of Future Restoration Efforts - $428,929
Project Director: Susan Bell (University of South Florida)
Project Team Affiliations: University of South Florida in cooperation with Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
Seagrass restoration is becoming an increasingly common management component for enhancing ecosystem health within the Gulf of Mexico. However, the various efforts undertaken by different entities have not yet been adequately assessed to learn about their success over time and inform future restoration efforts. This project aims to synthesize unpublished data from past seagrass restoration projects at over 250 sites along the Florida Coast into a single database, conduct on-site visits of selected projects, and convene a workshop involving researchers and restoration practitioners in order to determine best practices for seagrass restoration design and monitoring. The products will be used to improve both the implementation and assessment of future seagrass restoration efforts.

Topic 2: Improving Risk-Based Evaluations to Support a Public Health Response to the Next Oil Spill

“Many decisions relating to public health risks are made following a disaster such as an oil spill,” said Chris Rea, associate program officer for the GRP’s Thriving Communities Initiative. “Risk assessment science inherently involves numerous uncertainties, though, and decisions are limited by what we actually know about potential hazards.  The Academies' report highlighted recent advances that could be used to improve the science behind hazard identification, exposure assessment, and risk characterization, and these two projects are working to apply some of those advances for use in assessing oil spill public health risks.”

The two projects awarded grants under this topic, listed in alphabetical order by project title, are:

Assessing Toxicity of Oil Weathered on the Sea Surface: The Importance of Oil Photo-Products - $992,416
Project Director: Christoph Aeppli (Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences)
Project Team Affiliations: Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in cooperation with Applied Science Associates, Inc., Louisiana State University, University of California – Davis, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Oil floating at the ocean surface during an oil spill interacts with sunlight and forms “photo-products”. These photo-products are persistent and potentially toxic, but knowledge about their biological impacts and ecosystem and human health risks is limited. Thus they are not adequately accounted for by decision-makers when evaluating oil spill risks and impacts. This project, which includes practitioner engagement and input throughout, aims to address this knowledge gap and improve oil spill risk assessment by investigating the chemical composition, bioavailability, toxicity, and long-term health effects of oil photo-products and incorporating this information into models used for oil spill risk assessment.

Prioritizing Risks from Oil Spills: Supporting Decisions with Read-Across Using 21st Century Exposure and Toxicological Sciences - $700,000
Project Director: Weihsueh Chiu (Texas A&M University)
Project Team Affiliations: Texas A&M University in cooperation with Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Current evaluations of public health impacts of oil spills are largely based only on what is known about a few specific chemicals in oil. However, an oil spill can involve a complex mix of interacting substances and environmental factors, and this produces many unknowns that are either difficult or not currently possible to account for. Alternative approaches are needed to address existing limitations and improve assessment and decision-making processes relating to public health risks resulting from oil spills. This project, which includes interactions with a diverse range of practitioners, aims to address this need using new approaches and technologies in exposure science and toxicology that try to predict the toxicity of substances for which there is limited information using information from analogous or similar substances.

All projects were selected after an external peer-review process. These awards are part of the portfolio of Gulf Research Program funding opportunities outlined at www.nas.edu/gulf/grants.   

The National Academies' Gulf Research Program is an independent, science-based program founded in 2013 as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It seeks to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice, and capacity to generate long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation. The program has $500 million for use over 30 years to fund grants, fellowships, and other activities in the areas of research and development, education and training, and monitoring and synthesis. Visit www.national-academies.org/gulf to learn more.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit www.national-academies.org.

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