21 July 2010

Hey Gulf Coast Scientists - Don't Sign Those Contracts Yet

It's not at all surprising to read reports that BP is trying to "buy up Gulf scientists for legal defense" or to require that those in their employ not share anything with third parties.   Companies hire "expert witnesses" all the time and they expect those witnesses to sign confidentiality agreements.  It's standard practice.

It's also not at all surprising that BP is trying to sign on as many scientists as possible - doing so prevents plaintiffs (and media outlets) from talking with credible voices who might provide a point of view contrary to BP's interests.  It's a sound legal strategy, and it's a sound PR strategy.  As Rachel Maddow suggested,  does leave that smarmy bada-bing taste in your mouth, but it makes sense.

What is surprising is how little BP expects to pay the people who may ultimately may save their company:
More than one scientist interviewed by the Press-Register described being offered $250 an hour through BP lawyers. At eight hours a week, that amounts to $104,000 a year.
Let's be clear:  BP isn't hiring scientists to learn about the impact of oil on ocean life.  It isn't hiring scientists to assess flow rates, or review spill response, or learn how robot-guided diamond saws work a mile below the surface. BP is hiring scientists to limit the amount of money they'll have to pay in fines and settlements, and to control as much information as possible to limit the harm to its reputation.

If your role is really to provide expert-level credentials to a high-stakes legal and PR strategy, $250 an hour is chump change for a huge company like BP.  The best law firms and PR firms in America would charge probably double that right now.  For these firms, "crisis rates" tend to be higher because you're asking people to drop what they're doing with existing clients and work 24-7 for you. 

I have conversations with my wife the PhD all the time about how scientists are under-valued and PR flacks are over-priced.   The simple truth is both are paid what the market will bear.  I'm guessing scientists can demand a lot more for their services right now.

Seriously, if you're gonna work for these guys, don't settle for anything less than $500 an hour.

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