BP Goes After Scientists Who Helped Them During the Gulf Oil Disaster

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | June 4, 2012, 4:02 pm EDT
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The attack on the privacy of scientists’ email communication is expanding. It’s not just those who deny climate change who are going after the emails. Two scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution wrote in the Boston Globe over the weekend that British Petroleum has successfully subpoenaed more than 3,000 confidential emails among scientists that discuss the Gulf oil disaster.

Incredibly, the Woods Hole scientists in question volunteered their time and knowledge to help the government and BP who were, pardon the expression, in over their heads. The scientists were the experts on the deep sea environment, and they saw it as their responsibility to help out in a time of crisis.

The BP oil disaster

Scientists helped BP and the government understand the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In return, they were forced to turn over their private email correspondence. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

They used robotic technology they had developed for other reasons to determine the rate at which oil was gushing from the hole in the ocean floor. When BP asked to see their data and methodology, the scientists provided the company with 50,000 pages of raw data and research methods. That should have been all the company needed to verify the accuracy of the scientists’ research.

But BP wanted more, and convinced a judge to require the scientists to turn over their private correspondence.  And what are the consequences of the release? The scientists put it perfectly: “Our concern is not simply invasion of privacy, but the erosion of the scientific deliberative process.”

They go on to say:

“Deliberation is an integral part of the scientific method that has existed for more than 2,000 years; e-mail is the 21st century medium by which these deliberations now often occur. During this process, researchers challenge each other and hone ideas. In reviewing our private documents, BP will probably find e-mail correspondence showing that during the course of our analysis, we hit dead-ends; that we remained skeptical and pushed one another to analyze data from various perspectives; that we discovered weaknesses in our methods (if only to find ways to make them stronger); or that we modified our course, especially when we received new information that provided additional insight and caused us to re-examine hypotheses and methods.

In these candid discussions among researchers, constructive criticism and devil’s advocacy are welcomed. Such interchange does not cast doubt on the strengths of our conclusions; rather, it constitutes the typically unvarnished, yet rigorous, deliberative process by which scientists test and refine their conclusions to reduce uncertainty and increase accuracy.”

The scientists point out another consequence of this invasion of privacy: the disclosure of intellectual property. BP now has access to a lot of proprietary information about underwater surveillance technologies that was owned by the Woods Hole researchers.

Scientists are often ill-equipped to deal with these sorts of invasions of privacy by themselves, and their institutions are in the process of figuring out how to protect researchers while being responsive to court orders and statutes. It behooves organizations that do research, both public and private, to be fully prepared to create space for scientists to do their work in an era where many special interests are eager to take scientists’ email out of context in order to undermine the science.

The Woods Hole scientists saw a country in need and tried to do the right thing, and in the process got burned by a system that does not protect them. And the potential consequences are profound. Sure, scientists might be less likely to ask tough questions of each other in an environment where every sentence they write could be misrepresented. But they will also begin to think twice about using their knowledge to solve pressing and urgent national problems.

UPDATE: Woods Hole posted an excellent statement on its website from its president and director of research. with more details about the situation. The statement authors also advocate for the development of protections for scientists and their institutions.

“Such safeguards will help ensure the freedom of the nation’s scientific enterprise, thus assuring its continued success in fostering innovation and economic growth and in responding to societal needs and crises,” they write.

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  • j.michael carney

    My suggestion to cap the well is still on the discover magazine web under gulf oil suggestion j.michael carney How to capture a runaway oil well 5000 ft below the sea. The nonprofit group stole my idea that was faxed to everbody 50 government corperate and states that had a fax. The equipment that evolved to cap a well seems to be exactly like what I came up with. I do have the dates and times that I came up with and started to comtact Big OIl with a solution.(they were begging) At the time I contacted a patent lawyer ,he said It would be years to get this patent searched and implimented. I decided to put it out there. But for them to say there were to many suggestions is another lie. I read thousands of these ideas and I m not a betting man but I bet one dopllar that It not only made it, It made it to every big idea table from the president on down to the lowly bp table. I m sure there are many sleeze balls that put there name on the plan but I really think that this why its a nonprofit responce unit. Right now I m probably worth more dead than alive to these people. The other thing I can say is I have many more Ideas on this problem they have just never contacted me about the solutions. Well I have worked with many engineeres in my 30 years of work it is supprising how they can make a mountain out of a mole hill. Somepeople can think it out without touching it. The gift follows me everyday. I really don t understand it but it has caused me just as much pain as reward. j.michael carney pobox112 941 union st dividing creek nj 08315

  • Peter Whelan

    Woods Hole is not under contract with BP. They were asked by the U.S. Coast Guard to lend their considerable expertise to hasten containment of the biggest ecological disaster in our nation’s history.

    Then B.P. uses it’s corporate power to gain access to information that may prove invaluable to BP’s future success.

    Golly Gee Willakers, Mr. Binkley, if I was President, I’d order the U.S. Attorney General to launch a full-scale investigation into the matter. Of course, in a fair and just world BP’s strong-arm tactics would not pass muster.

    Down with BP.

    God bless the scientists who works to improve the quality of life on Earth.

  • Mensa Gal

    Why is secrecy vital to the scientific method? True, public discourse between scientists can sometimes expose all of us to some pretty unprofessional attitudes and no small measure of political infighting. But mostly it is merely boring. Science and the scientific method work only when there is full disclosure. Secrecy has no role to play in developing good, solid, reliable scientific progress. I say publish the findings, publish the raw data, publish the emails. What are you hiding?

    • Michael Halpern

      There was already full disclosure in this case before BP sued for access to the emails. The scientists made all of their data, methods, and conclusions available to the company. This isn’t about hiding anything. It’s about giving scientists the space they need to test out new ideas.

      Think about when you would write a paper for school. The first draft might contain sentences or phrases that might seem silly later on in the process. Would you think it was fair for your teacher or professor to grade you on that first draft and then post it on the Internet, suggesting that this was your best work, and inviting the school bullies to have at it?

      We live in a world where statements are often taken out of context for political and commercial gain. Ideas and research that are ready for prime time should be published. Those that are not deserve sufficient privacy to be refined.

      Notice that the BP lawyers are not offering up their emails describing their internal deliberations…

      Furthermore, our economy depends on the ability of scientists to develop and refine new technologies. This is not a trivial issue. Privacy is necessary for this process to play out.

      • Michael

        Mr. Halpren, I did not know of this specific case until now. Your blog article has certainly caught my attention. I have not yet read the case so I am admittedly ignorant. Maybe it is time for the lawyers, as you propose, to submit their e-mails. Do they have something to hide?

        What was the stated concern that BP offered for a reason to obtain the e-mails? Who was the judge? Were the scientist granted secure access to privileged BP information?

        Mensa Gal asks “What are you hiding?” I certainly hope this is rhetorical.

        At issue is the invasive nature of a corporation into the privacy of an individual or individuals. Until recently, respect for private dialogue has been the norm and invasion of privacy, although occurring, has been historically viewed as abusive. Is a carte blanche exposure of e-mail exchanges between scientist an invasion of their privacy? Yes. How much redaction was permitted? Are their personal research journals as they pertain to the their involvement with the BP disaster relevant to BP and public scrutiny? Slippery. Were they being paid? Not from what I read. Were they granted secure access to BP information? Their published results are definitely open to review. With a peer reviewed journal article, methodologies and results are posted for public scrutiny. Imagine if this were a privacy intrusion sought by BP or other entities working on their behalf, (or on behalf of the industry) for the purpose of evading liability. I truly hope that the judge that presided had just cause. Judges who choose to set aside individual privacy in preference to corporate privacy invasion should be very publicly humiliated and dismissed.

        With the internet, Americans have slowly moved toward an acceptance of an exposed life…which from my perspective is evolving into a Truman Story. This ebbing away at a personal sense of privacy is having a cost.

    • GDWillams

      Science and the scientific method have nothing at all to fear from disclosure of techniques, statistical methods used to analyze data, etc. But everyone has something to fear when a business entity seeks from them personal and private communications that could serve no other purpose than to provide a powerful corporation under immense financial pressure to absolve itself of all blame in an event where someone or something has clearly is to blame for at least some of the critical lapses in safety that combined to cause the spill.

      What possible use could informal deliberations or opinions expressed by these scientists could there be other than to try and mine their unguarded conversation for ways to undermine the info entered into the record by their release of the raw data pool? Obviously it contains information BP doesnt want forming the official record of the spill.

      I’m reminded of the way Big Oil used a very similar tactic to this one when similar-minded execs decided that the science proving them culpable for AGW was the critical link capable of making the legal argument politicians could then use to force then to take responsibilty their actions damaging others had to go. Suddenly that mysterious hacking of key IPCC scientists engaged in ungaurded conversations being mined for anything offering Big Oil a way of mischaracterizing the real scientific data already released showing overwhelming evidence of irresponsible management of their industry.

  • Jacques Bouvier

    If BP had a contract that included access to private email communication and the right to browse through the results of other projects done by these researchers, then there is no issue. But have I missed something here?

    Were these scientists under contract to BP? And did that contract give BP the right to inspect work product unrelated to the deepwater horizon? If these researchers were not under contract, what right does BP have to their correspondence? Indeed, unless it was explicitly included in their contract, BP should have no claim on correspondence of any kind. Just the finished results.

    • Michael Halpern

      Hi Jacques,

      Woods Hole provides more information in a statement about the nature of the scientists’ research. The scientists were not under contract with BP. They work for Woods Hole and conducted their work at the request of the United States Coast Guard.

      The institution’s statement makes several excellent points and is well worth a read. The authors make clear that Woods Hole did everything it could to enable the company to reanalyze the scientists’ findings:

      “In December 2011, WHOI was subpoenaed by lawyers representing BP in response to lawsuits brought against the oil company by the U.S. government, fishermen, workers, and residents injured by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It is important to note that WHOI is not a party to the lawsuit. BP claimed in its subpoena that it needed information to better understand scientific findings by Camilli, Reddy, and others related to the flow rate measurements they made at the Macondo well. Cleanwater Act violation fines that will be levied on BP may be based in great measure on the amount of oil released; therefore, billions of dollars are at stake.

      “As was stated in the Globe op-ed, WHOI turned over everything BP would need to analyze and confirm or refute the findings. However, BP demanded more—the scientists’ email communications, notes, and manuscript drafts: ‘…any transmission or exchange of any information, whether orally or in writing, including without limitation any conversation or discussion…’ concerning the research. WHOI, through our lawyers at Goodwin Procter, challenged this demand, but on April 20, the magistrate judge ordered the institution to produce the vast majority of its deliberative work.”

  • Nancy Roberts-Moneir

    BP and many, if not all, big corporations operate within an environment of distrust, and they cannot but project this distrust on those who work with them, most likely disbelieving “pure” motives in the offer of assistance. These scientists were entering the lion’s den from the beginning.

  • Jim

    The deck was stacked against the scientists. BP and their legal counsel understand judges and judges do not understand science.

    • Altair Zielite

      A foreign corporation can look at private communications from scientists of an institution that partners with NASA and the department of defense among many other parties of interest??? private communications that could have included proprietary information about other partners, contracts, or sponsors??? Are you kidding me?