From The Guardian 6.6.12
Oceanographers say they fear erosion of scientific process after they were forced to turn over emails related to BP oil spill
A pair of scientists have accused BP of an attack on academic freedom after the oil company successfully subpoenaed thousands of confidential emails related to research on the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.
The accusation from oceanographers Richard Camilli and Christopher Reddy offered a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes legal manoeuvring by BP in the billion-dollar legal proceedings arising from the April 2010 blow-out of its well.
It also heightened fears among scientists of an assault on academic freedoms, following the legal campaign against a number of prominent climate scientists.
In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, the scientists, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said they volunteered in the early days of the spill to deploy robotic technology to help BP and the Coast Guard assess how much oil was gushing from the well.
The two researchers turned over some 50,000 pages of research notes and data to BP. But BP demanded more, and obtained a court subpoena for the handover of more than 3,000 confidential emails. The scientists handed over the emails last week – but with severe misgivings, they wrote.
“Our concern is not simply invasion of privacy, but the erosion of the scientific deliberative process,” they wrote. They feared the email exchanges, in which the scientists discuss hitting dead ends or challenging each other on their conclusions, were open to deliberate misinterpretation.
“Incomplete thoughts and half-finished documents attached to emails can be taken out of context and impugned by people who have a motive for discrediting the findings. In addition to obscuring true scientific findings, this situation casts a chill over the scientific process. In future crises, scientists may censor or avoid deliberations, and more importantly, be reluctant to volunteer valuable expertise and technology that emergency responders don’t possess.”
The struggle over the emails indicates the looming legal significance of any data related to the flow of oil from the stricken well.
A former BP engineer was charged last April with destroying evidence after he deleted text messages discussing the flow of oil from the stricken well.
The justice department indicated at the time that Kurt Mix, the former engineer, was only the first to face criminal charges. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that officials were investigating whether BP executives lied to Congress about the spill during closed door briefings in the early days of the disaster.
A spokesman for BP declined to respond to the scientists on Monday.
Michael Halpern, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it was a shoddy way to treat scientists who had volunteered to help the country in a time of crisis.
“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,” he wrote. “But they will also begin to think twice about using their knowledge to solve pressing and urgent national problems.”
BP’s demand for e-mail will erode the scientific deliberative process
By Christopher Reddy and Richard Camilli
Late last week, we reluctantly handed over more than 3,000 confidential e-mails to BP, as part of a subpoena from the oil company demanding access to them because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster lawsuit brought by the US government. We are accused of no crimes, nor are we party to the lawsuit. We are two scientists at an academic research institution who responded to requests for help from BP and government officials at a time of crisis.
Because there are insufficient laws and legal precedent to shield independent scientific researchers, BP was able to use the federal courts to gain access to our private information. Although the presiding judge magistrate recognized the need to protect confidential e-mails to avoid deterring future research, she granted BP’s request.
It is the lack of legal protection that has us concerned.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster caused the death of 11 people and spilled oil at an unprecedented depth of nearly a mile under the Gulf of Mexico. That deep-sea environment was aqua incognita to the oil industry and federal responders, but a familiar neighborhood for us at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. BP and Coast Guard officials asked for our help to assess the disaster, and we obliged.
We responded by leading on-site operations using robotic submersibles equipped with advanced technologies that we had developed for marine science. We applied them to measure the rate of fluid release from the well and to sample fluids from within the well. We then volunteered our professional time to scrutinize this data and published two peer-reviewed studies in a respected scientific journal. We determined an average flow rate of 57,000 barrels of oil per day and calculated a total release of approximately 4.9 million barrels.
BP claimed that it needed to better understand our findings because billions of dollars in fines are potentially at stake. So we produced more than 50,000 pages of documents, raw data, reports, and algorithms used in our research — everything BP would need to analyze and confirm our findings. But BP still demanded access to our private communications. Our concern is not simply invasion of privacy, but the erosion of the scientific deliberative process.
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. To ensure the research’s quality, scientific peers conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the work before it is published.
A byproduct of the order to hand over our e-mails is that BP now has access to the intellectual property attached to the e-mails, including advanced robotic navigation tools and sub-sea surveillance technologies that have required substantial research investment by our laboratories and have great economic value to marine industries such as offshore energy production. The court provides no counterbalancing legal assistance to verify that BP or its affiliates do not infringe on our property rights. Although there is a confidentiality agreement that BP is subject to, the burden is left entirely to us, a single academic research organization, to police the use of our intellectual property by one of the largest corporations in the world.
Ultimately this is not about BP. Our experience highlights that virtually all of scientists’ deliberative communications, including e-mails and attached documents, can be subject to legal proceedings without limitation. Incomplete thoughts and half-finished documents attached to e-mails can be taken out of context and impugned by people who have a motive for discrediting the findings In addition to obscuring true scientific findings, this situation casts a chill over the scientific process. In future crises, scientists may censor or avoid deliberations, and more importantly, be reluctant to volunteer valuable expertise and technology that emergency responders don’t possess. Open, scientific deliberation is critical to science. It needs to be protected in a way that maintains transparency in the scientific process, but also avoids unnecessary intrusions that stifle research vital to national security and economic interests.
Christopher Reddy and Richard Camilli are scientists at the Woods Hole