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

June 4, 2012 | 4:02 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

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.