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Woods Hole Scientists Forced To Turn Over Emails About BP Spill

This article is more than 10 years old.

It's been two years since the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The amount of oil that gushed from BP's Deepwater Horizon well into the Gulf of Mexico is estimated at nearly 5 million barrels, and a lot rides on that number because it will determine how big a federal fine BP pays for the disaster.

"Clearly, they would have an interest in having a lower figure be accepted by the court," said Dr. Larry Madin, director of research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Madin and his colleagues, who helped measure how much oil spewed out of BP's damaged well, have unwittingly found themselves affected by a lawsuit between BP and the U.S. government: they were recently ordered by a federal court to turn over all their research, including "all of the raw data — the calculations, the algorithms, the drafts and so forth," Madin said. "That was over 50,000 pages of material, many hundreds of hours of video. We provided everything that BP would have needed to reconstruct and recreate and analyze what our scientists did in order to come up with the result that they did."

The Woods Hole researchers were perfectly willing to hand over that information, but they are very dismayed that they were also required to give BP thousands of what they consider confidential email messages. They say that's not only an invasion of privacy, but a threat to the scientific process. When Madin spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer, he explained his concerns about BP having all that email.

Dr. Larry Madin: The issue here simply is that, in the course of working on this project, the various scientists involved had a lot of correspondence back and forth. And, as is normal in this sort of deliberative process in science, there's a lot of testing of ideas and discussion and perhaps some argument. And any of that taken out of context could give the false impression that there was some sort of uncertainty or that there were people changing their mind, and all of that might cast doubt on the final outcome.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Is there something that happened in the middle of your research that might make BP think something was untoward?

Well, one example is that when one of the scientists gave testimony for the presidential commission, he cited a preliminary estimate of the flow rate and said that this might be subject to revision depending on new information. Well, subsequently there was additional information and they came up with a slightly different answer, which was in fact somewhat lower but still within the margin of error. But if you really wanted to, you could try to argue that those two answers suggested that the scientists didn't know what they were doing.

We had asked BP for a statement, and the statement they sent us said that this is no way an attack on science, that the information requested is regularly sought as part of civil litigation, and that in many cases there was no other source for the information, so if they wanted it they had to go there. Do you think that if you were BP you would have asked for the exact same information?

It's quite possible we would have. But that doesn't change the fact that we believe that there needs to be a greater degree of protection in law for this kind of scientific discourse.

In this day and age, many of us are told over and over again in the workplace don't put anything in your email that you wouldn't want everybody to see. Do you think Woods Hole should have expected or anticipated that its emails might be wanted, and should you have seen this coming?

You know, email is the common medium of communication among everyone these days, and it would be very difficult to carry out the kind of discourse that was needed here without using email. We can't do it by writing long-hand letters to each other. So while people may be more cautious in what they put in the messages, I think we'll never get away from the fact that there's some risk that people can pick things out of context.

Do you think the lesson here is that scientists, when using email to communicate about a case, need to make sure that everything is thorough and there's no incomplete thought and so forth?

I really don't see how we can expect everybody to always have a complete thought in this process. I mean, this back-and-forth is part of what makes the scientific method work, and I think it's an unreasonable and unfair restriction to expect that of working scientists.

This program aired on June 12, 2012.


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