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Oil Spill Tests Obama Vow To Use Scientific Approach

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Oil Spill Tests Obama Vow To Use Scientific Approach


Oil Spill Tests Obama Vow To Use Scientific Approach

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The oil spill has tested the Obama administration's promise to take a science-based, data-driven approach to solving problems. NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro has that story.

ARI SHAPIRO: Less than two months into the Obama presidency, the White House issued a presidential memorandum on scientific integrity.

President BARACK OBAMA: To ensure that in this new administration, we base our public policies on the soundest science, that we appoint scientific advisors based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology. And that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions.

SHAPIRO: President Obama set a 120-day deadline for a directive to lay out the details of the science policy. The document is now almost a year late.

Dr. Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists says it could have been useful in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. FRANCESCA GRIFO (Union of Concerned Scientists): I'm just very frustrated with how long it has taken for us to have this order, and particularly in light of these events, where this kind of guidance clearly could have made a difference in this situation.

SHAPIRO: The science of the oil spill has many branches. There's stopping it, cleaning it and measuring it. As recently as yesterday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said measuring the spill was not a priority.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Spokesman, White House):There's not a hey, there's a thousand-barrel-a-day response, now it's five, get this notebook out and check this. It's always been a catastrophic response.

SHAPIRO: For weeks, BP and the Coast Guard estimated 5,000 barrels of oil were spilling into the Gulf each day. Then BP released video footage that independent scientists used to come up with a much higher estimate.

Government scientists who had that footage for at least a week before the public didnt change their estimate until yesterday, when the Coast Guard acknowledged that the initial figure was too low.

In a teleconference, Dr. Jane Lubchenco said a group of government scientists came together just this week to seek a scientifically defensible measurement. She runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Dr. JANE LUBCHENCO (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): We've always said that it is extremely important to get a reliable flow rate. But we've known all along that doing so would be extraordinarily difficult.

SHAPIRO: But given that well-established techniques have been around for a very long time to measure undersea oil flow, why has it taken a month into this crisis to come up with a solid, reliable number that apparently we still don't even have?

Dr. LUBCHENCO: The decision was made that the first priority had to be to stop the flow.

SHAPIRO: But that still doesn't explain why the government failed to analyze the video footage that BP provided weeks ago, or why President Obama made this statement in the White House Rose Garden last Friday:

Pres. OBAMA: I know there have been varying reports over the last few days about how large the leak is. But since no one can get down there in person, we know there's a level of uncertainty.

SHAPIRO: That answer was not enough for some scientists who were expecting the data-driven, science-based approach this White House promised.

Dr. Joseph Romm writes the blog for the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Dr. JOSEPH ROMM (Writer,, Center for American Progress): I would like to have seen the administration push harder to get a better number.

SHAPIRO: Candidate Barack Obama often criticized the Bush administration for ignoring science.

Dr. John Marburger was science adviser to President Bush, and if he's feeling any schadenfreude right now, he's not telling.

Dr. JOHN MARBURGER (Former Science Adviser, President Bush): The fact is, there is politics in the air on all these things, and I don't think anyone is surprised by that. It's important that President Obama has been supportive of science.

SHAPIRO: He says it's just unfortunate that in any administration, sometimes politics muddies the water.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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