Should Science Take Sides In The Gulf? Some scientists say they're being locked out of research on the oil spill because they refuse to sign confidentiality agreements. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the problems of doing scientific research when a lawsuit is pending. Is there a way to keep science independent?
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Should Science Take Sides In The Gulf?

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Should Science Take Sides In The Gulf?

Should Science Take Sides In The Gulf?

Should Science Take Sides In The Gulf?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Some scientists say they're being locked out of research on the oil spill because they refuse to sign confidentiality agreements. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the problems of doing scientific research when a lawsuit is pending. Is there a way to keep science independent?

Linda Hooper-Bui, associate professor, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Louisiana State University A&M, Baton Rouge, La.

Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean, School of The Coast and Environment, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La.

Cary Nelson, president, American Association of University Professors, Urbana-Champaign, Ill.


You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Imagine that the Gulf of Mexico was a giant crime scene. You know that yellow crime-scene tape, imagine that it's spread all over the Gulf and if you want to cross it, you can't, without getting permission from the authorities who have roped it off.

So if you're a scientist, and you want to investigate that giant oil plume 22 miles long that the scientists at Woods Hole now say exists, or if you want to measure how much oil has sunk to the bottom and may be affecting the wildlife there, you as an important, independent scientist, may not be allowed in.

The only information or the facts that are allowed to be collected belong to the parties involved. That's BP and the U.S. government. And because both BP and the feds have a vital and monetary interest in the amount of oil still in the water and on the wetlands, you have to get past the lawyers first, before you can go on to public property and waterways.

And with billions of dollars at stake, the government and BP will head to court. The extent of the damage and how much spill should cost BP will be decided through the legal system. And as one of my guests writes in an editorial in the Washington Post, both sides will seek to use science in a legal context.

Much of the information obtained from research and monitoring will be tied up in the courts rather than being made publicly available and scrutinized.

So where does that leave science and scientists? Some say it leaves them locked out of doing independent research unless you want to sign an agreement to hand over all the data that you collect, and lose control of it.

Joining me now to talk about this are my guests. Linda Hooper-Bui is an associate professor at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center and at the LSU A&M. She joins us by phone from Baton Rouge. Thanks for talking with us today, Dr. Bui.

Dr. LINDA HOOPER-BUI (Associate Professor, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Louisiana State University A&M): Hello, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there. Christopher D'Elia is professor and dean of the School of The Coast and Environment, also at Louisiana State University. He joins us today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. D'Elia.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER D'ELIA (Professor, Dean, School of The Coast and Environment, Louisiana State University): Hi, Ira, how are you?

FLATOW: You're I'm well, thank you. Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors. He's based in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. He joins us from Maryland. Thanks for being with us today.

Professor CARY NELSON (President, American Association of University Professors): Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Glad to have you. Let me begin with you, Christopher D'Elia. You wrote that in the Washington Post. Is science being held hostage to the lawyers now?

Dr. D'ELIA: Well, in a way, it is. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was put together really to respond to the Exxon Valdez situation that occurred just prior to that, provides for what is called the NRDA process, the national resource damage assessment process, which essentially is a legal process.

And it pits the government that's trying to maximize the damages for obvious reason against the industry, in this case BP, that's trying to minimize the damages.

So science is being used in both sides but in an advocacy role by the attorneys that are representing the two groups.

FLATOW: Linda Hooper-Bui, tell us of your personal experience and those of your student scientists.

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: We've had trouble getting access to publicly available sites. In one area, we were my student was working, and samples were removed from his possession. They are actually still sitting in an office in South Alabama.

FLATOW: Who removed them?

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: In another area, we were actually prevented from going, in South Louisiana, into Grand Isle and into another area adjacent to that, Port Fourchon.

FLATOW: Who took your samples from you?

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer.

FLATOW: And what was the reason that they gave you for that?

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: Because we were not my project was not approved by incident command, and I wasn't participating in the NRDA process, as Dr. D'Elia indicated.

FLATOW: And these are places you had gone countless times on your own in the past.

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: In South Louisiana, yes, absolutely, or publicly available areas that, you know, normally one would have access to, yes.

FLATOW: And you study the wetlands?


FLATOW: And you were there looking to collect data about the oil spill on the wetlands?

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: Sure. I study insects, and we were very interested in looking, using you know, this is a huge drilling disaster, and as a scientist, you know, we don't often get an opportunity to look at that amount and type of stress that would happen to the food web in the wetlands. And so we are using this as an opportunity to test scientific hypotheses.

FLATOW: And are you now - have you given up trying to go back?

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: Well, we found we've just, we've tried to find friendlier areas, friendlier people, people who are willing to allow us to have access to the areas and to the land. So we found adjacent areas. It's very time-consuming to do that, though.

FLATOW: So why not just sign those papers that they want you to sign?

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: No way. First of all, I have a Ph.D. student who came from China to study in the wetlands. This is the greatest wetlands in the world, according to him. And my role as a professor is to teach him how to conduct science, and science is conducted in an open, peer-reviewed way, and to teach him how to present his work and to write up his work. And his Ph.D. would pretty much be on hold.

And also, it's just, it's not how - I test hypotheses. I don't collect data for, to support somebody's idea to go into litigation. That's not how I operate as a scientist.

FLATOW: Cary Nelson, what obligations or responsibilities do individual scientists in this to their work or to BP or the government?

Prof. NELSON: Well, the AAUP, which I'm president of, has actually been involved in this issue since the first statement we issued, which was in 1905, and we warned against the danger of powerful economic and business interests limiting the free flow of the results of scientific research.

This, of course, happened after the Exxon Valdez spill, when there was the same conflict between NRDA's desire to control information so as to have, you know, power over it during the litigation process, and of course, Exxon's desire also, to have data and scientific testimony that would be under their control.

And in the short term, which in this case means several years, the losers is first of all the public, which doesn't get to know the results of scientific research; and secondly, Congress, which potentially passes legislation; and then thirdly, regulatory agencies, which during a normal timeframe, might well want to revise regulations about drilling in the Gulf.

But BP's limitation on the exchange of research, they're willing to control research from people who sign contracts with them for up to three years. The average sea turtle can't sit in an oil slick for three years without some assistance. I mean, that's realistically, that's the entire time period in which either legislation or regulations would likely be adjusted. I mean, thats three years is a long time for American memory.

So, I mean, this because the context of litigation puts some pressure on the litigants to withhold data, it means that the public good is finally not being served. I mean, what we believe is that scientific research should be freely shared.

There are restrictions here not just against publication but even against talking with one another. And then there's a whole additional level of problem, which is that the failure to share the information means that in many cases, scientists involved in individual research projects can't see the whole picture.

I mean, if they've signed either the NRDA contract or the BP contract, they may simply be collecting data, but they don't have the full range of data available to them from other researchers to be able to do a full analysis of the problem.

And as we've seen with the Gulf oil spill, there's a need for information, which is continuous and considerable. I mean, day by day, the situation changes, and one needs to be able to respond. One needs to know what the best clean-up methods are. One needs to know the damage to the environment. And all of these all of this tremendous need to know, because it affects what you do, is being compromised by the limits on the flow of information.

FLATOW: And of course, because we have two conflicting parties in a lawsuit here, potential lawsuit, being BP and the government, they both have a vested interest in what numbers you come up with.

Prof. NELSON: Right. I mean, it's an extraordinary situation. I mean, in an odd way, there was no real preparation, of course, for dealing with the oil spill, that is for responding to it. But at the same time, there was really no comprehensive notion of what this scientific investigation should be like.

And it seems to me that after the Exxon Valdez spill, there would have been some concerted government effort to decide how best to coordinate the science, how to maximize the gathering of data and the analysis of the data in as public a format as possible. And neither thing happened.

FLATOW: Yeah, let me to go the phones, Darren(ph) in College Station, Texas. Hi, Darren.

DARREN (Caller): Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

DARREN: I'm an adjunct professor here at A&M, and we were also in the Gulf, but got thrown out. We were testing a theory that the chemical composition of the dispersant they were using was causing the oil to sink. And we'd been there for approximately three days, and federal agents flat told us to get out. And it wasn't Fish and Wildlife officers. These were Homeland Security officers, and we were told that it was in the interest of national security.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. NELSON: I mean, I could see restricting access so that 500 people shouldn't be able to ride their dune buggies along the beach, but reputable scientists should have access.

FLATOW: Darren, did take your samples away or anything - take anything away from you?

DARREN: Oh, yeah, they inspected the boat. They, of course, checked everyone's identification, and they took all the samples that we had. And they also took some notes that we had. The theory that we were operating upon was information that had been given to us by someone who worked in the plant that made that dispersant. And they took everything.


DARREN: (unintelligible)...

Prof. NELSON: Ira, it's really kind of an insane world that we've entered into in terms of the barring of reputable scientists from a public site where they can contribute considerably to the knowledge that we have.

FLATOW: Dr. D'Elia, do you know of other cases like Darren's?

Dr. D'ELIA: Yes, I've heard of other cases anecdotally. But I think that there are a couple of other points we made in our Washington Post op-ed piece that are really critical, and they bear on this, as well, that probably, the foremost one is something that Cary Nelson just said, which is we're not really planning, in a comprehensive way, how to deal with large-scale scientific disasters. And what plans apparently do exist seem to be within the government only, and do not extend to the academic community.

And we think that OSTP really is where there should be much more of this planning going on. They coordinate national science efforts, and we would hope to see more of that, or to have seen more of that. The second point I would make - and it's very important - is there's a de facto inability to get out if there's no money to go out and study what's going on out there. And the federal government has made very, very little money available for independent research to do studies of the oil plumes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. D'ELIA: And the only place that we've really had substantial success with is the National Science Foundation, but the total amount of funding they've had available is relatively small from the grant (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Linda Hooper-Bui, you got a grant, did you not?

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: Yes, sir. The National Science Foundation, to date, has funded $6.9 million to 70 projects which may - like my project has a total of 10 investigators working together on this project, and our project is funded at the level of 137,000. So it's very - we used all of our discretionary money to rush out, gather preliminary data, and then we have $137,000 between 10 investigators to analyze oil, analyze some pretty complex samples, to look at oyster uptake of oil and effect of growth on oysters, mussels and snails, and then also look at the insect samples and some foraminifera. We have a lot of research that we've coupled together, and we have a one-year process that's going to occur.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

Prof. NELSON: It's also disturbing that I've seen the inhibitions on science research have also made it easier for spokespeople from both BP and, indeed, from the federal government to claim facts about the oil spill which are not factually demonstrable and, indeed, may be very much in doubt.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. NELSON: You know, such as the, you know, 75 or 85 percent of it's gone, and they don't bother to look what's settled to the bottom of the seafloor, which is, after all, what happened a lot of the oil after the Exxon Valdez disaster. And so it wouldn't take a genius to figure out the same thing might have happened here.

FLATOW: We're talking about oil in the Gulf this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Linda Hooper-Bui, if you got more money, could you still go back and study what you need to? Or you're still restricted because, as you say, you're not signing those confidentiality agreements, and I imagine you're not letting your other students sign that?

Dr. HOOPER-BUI: No, sir. We are not signing, and will not sign a confidentiality agreement. I view my job as I'm a public servant, so that I'm not serving the public and keeping my data quiet. The interesting thing is, in recent days, as the cleanup efforts and the number of people in the beach has decreased, the areas have gotten a little bit more open. And also, there's been some mechanisms put in place through the LSU-A&M campus Office of Research and Economic Development, where their - the facilitation of access appears to be opening.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How did - the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute this week issued a press release - actually, the results of a study in which they sort of contradicted the government study. And they found that there is, in fact, a 22-mile plume of oil from data that they had collected in June. Dr. D'Elia, how were they able to get in there and collect that data?

Dr. D'ELIA: Well, they were very fortunate. They got in early, and they did get permission from incident command to do it. They had NSF rapid funds, as Linda does, and they used very sophisticated instrumentation not available to the government to find this oil. And I think that is -another dimension here is the way that the government does its science is really pretty conservative and based on established and old practices. And the way that the research community and the academic world operates were constantly trying to be at the cutting edge. And I think the Woods Hole group was definitely in that area.

FLATOW: Now, the LSU people, I understand, there are LSU scientists, Dr. D'Elia, who have signed that confidentiality agreement, correct?

Dr. D'ELIA: The may be a couple, but I'm not really aware of a lot of LSU people having signed on. I don't have all the information on who LSU has or has not signed on, but the scuttlebutt around has been most people really want to be independent, as Linda does. They value scientific interchange. The way we make progress is not by just hoarding our data and keeping it all quiet. We talk to each other. We try to interact, and we try to advance knowledge in a collective way. And this is sort of antithetical...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. D'ELIA: that approach.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to have...

Prof. NELSON: My impression is that (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: Hang in there. Hang in there, Cary. We're going to - we have to take a break. We'll come back with your comments first, okay? Stay with us. We're talking about doing science - doing scientific research in the Gulf, which has basically been roped off between two parties, BP and the U.S. government, which are going to be fighting it out in court over how much damage to pay - how much to pay for the damages of the oil.

So stay with us. 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. Maybe you're a scientist who has been turned away. We'd like to hear from you. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about doing scientific - doing research in the Gulf of Mexico and the legal problems in trying to do that independently, with my guests, Linda Hooper-Bui, associate professor at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean of the School of The Coast and Environment - also at LSU - Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

Cary, you wanted to say something before the break?

Prof. NELSON: Yeah, Ira. I mean, there's another - a couple of other issues that are worth raising. One is that - one of the principles that we argue is that when a scientist signs a research contract with a corporation, that contract should not include either restrictions on testimony in court or a commitment to testify on behalf of the corporation. I mean, to keep science clean, those really should be separate documents, and someone who signs a research contract should not have to also sign a separate document...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. NELSON: ...that leaves the corporation free to decide whether or not that person testifies.

FLATOW: But how is this different from pharmaceutical companies who are signing up university scientists to do the work and going into work with the universities themselves? They sign non-disclosure forms and secrecy agreements all the time, don't they?

Prof. NELSON: Well, you know, the - there are two major industries that have long compromised the freedom of science inquiry, and that's the tobacco industry and the pharmaceutical industry. I mean, they have the longest histories of essentially, sometimes, suborning whole departments and limiting the research that they do and purchasing testimony.

So, you know, you're perfectly apt in citing those examples, but they aren't examples that are cheerful or really proper. I mean, they are industries that have damaged scientific integrity. I mean, if you look at the number of faculty members over the years who testified in Congress that smoking wasn't harmful to your health, well, I have to think that some of them knew better. You can see what happens, what money can do to people. It can be very damaging.

FLATOW: I'd like to note that we invited BP to send a spokesperson to the program, but they didn't take us up on our offer.

1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us at @scifri, @S-C-I F-R-I, if you'd like to get us going. I want to hear you. Let's go to Matthew, in West Philadelphia. Hi, Matthew.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hey, Ira. Love your show.

FLATOW: Thank you.

MATTHEW: My question is (technical difficulties) of the spill. You all have kind of touched on it a little bit, but, you know, from the early onset, there were scientists that you just spoke about who saw these huge plumes. So it's proven scientific fact. So who do we trust? Like, these scientists, or the government? And does that mean it's a spill that's probably a lot worse...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

MATTHEW: ...than we think it is?

FLATOW: Let me go to Dr. D'Elia.

Dr. D'ELIA: Well, I think that the dimension of the spill is pretty much agreed to at this stage, and I believe those estimates are probably pretty well known. The real issue is what happened to the oil.

MATTHEW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. D'ELIA: And the debate between the government, which is saying roughly three-quarters of it is just - is gone for one reason or another, and people on the other side, such as the University of Georgia at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, are saying, well, wait a minute. You really don't have enough information to make such a claim. And I would tend to suspect that a lot of the oil has been gone, given the nature of the oil. But on the other hand, I would like to see it confirmed a little bit more substantially than in a...

FLATOW: Well...

Dr. D'ELIA: ...essentially a five-page (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Isn't that what we define science as? As being able to - you know, to go back and do the same investigation and come up with the same answer or something different? The ability to - you know, to do the experiment over and over again. And it doesn't seem like - here what you're saying is that we don't have that ability to do that.

Dr. D'ELIA: Absolutely, because the government held all the cards, essentially.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you see any of this changing, or do we just have to wait for the litigation to take its course?

Dr. D'ELIA: Well, I really think that the law is going to have to change. I - this is due for reauthorization in the near term. And I think we're going to need to find some real way to provide for independent scientific research.

There has been, for years, a very difficult relationship within the regulatory agencies like NOAA, that have regulatory functions, like EPA that have regulatory functions, of what happens to research. They've got an inherent conflict of interest. They're both regulators, and they have to perform the research in an unbiased way that's going to support their regulation. That's a real challenge. And I think we're going to have to take a look at all of these kinds of agencies in a more close fashion than we have in the past.

FLATOW: All right. Let me - I've got time for one more caller.

Prof. NELSON: One other thing would be that it's quite possible that the agencies that fund research should not themselves be involved in the litigation.

FLATOW: Ah, we've heard that before.

Prof. NELSON: Yes.

Dr. D'ELIA: I'd agree.

FLATOW: Let's go to Charles Wohlforth in Anchorage. Hi, Charles.

Mr. CHARLES WOHLFORTH (Author, "The Fate of Nature"): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi. You were a past guest on our program, talking about Exxon Valdez. You see a parallel here?

Mr. WOHLFORTH: Yeah. The parallel is they're really quite distressing, you know, in what we can see from the Exxon Valdez, which is what I wrote about in my book - you interviewed me about "The Fate of Nature" -is that the result of getting the lawyers in charge of the science program is you don't get the answers you need. So 20 years after the Exxon Valdez, we still don't know what happened to the herring. We still really don't know how much oil was released. You know, we still don't know the major ecosystem effect, and that's after spending $500 million on science. And the reason for that failure is because of the secrecy that's been mentioned, and also because lawyers are not scientists. And when they design a science program, they get it wrong.

FLATOW: Okay. Well, we've run out of time. I think that's a good perspective to end with. Thanks for joining us, Charles. Thanks for the call. Also, I want to thank the rest of my guests today: Linda Hooper-Bui is associate professor at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center and at LSU A&M; Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean of the School of The Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University; Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors. Thank you all for taking your time to be with us.

Prof. NELSON: Thanks a lot.

Dr. D'ELIA: Thank you very much.

Prof. HOOPER-BUI: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're all welcome.

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