BP Subpoenas E-mails of WHOI Scientists
By: Brent Runyon
Two scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, both of whom live in Falmouth, handed over more than 3,000 confidential e-mails to BP last week as part of a subpoena by the oil company, because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster lawsuit brought by the federal government.
The scientists, Christopher M. Reddy of Spectacle Pond Drive, Hatchville, and Richard Camilli of Millfield Street, Woods Hole, could not answer questions this week because they are likely to be deposed in the case, according to Stephanie Murphy, manager of public information for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
But the scientists, in a column published in The Boston Globe last Sunday, highlighted their concerns that BP could use the e-mails out of context to discredit their findings and have access to secret intellectual property. The release of the e-mails will also have a chilling effect on the scientific process in general, they wrote.
They are not accused of any crimes or party to the lawsuit, they wrote in the editorial. “We are two scientists at an academic institution who responded to requests for help from BP and government officials at a time of crisis,” they wrote.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster, which began on April 20, 2010, killed 11 people and spilled oil at a depth of nearly a mile in 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,” they wrote.
Dr. Reddy and Dr. Camilli used robotic submersibles equipped with advanced technologies they had developed for marine science. They measured the rate of fluid released from the well and determined an average flow rate of 57,000 barrels of oil per day and calculated the 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,” they wrote. “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.”
Scientific Method: Examine And Re-Examine
Deliberation is an integral part of the scientific method, they wrote, and during the process researchers challenge each other and hone their 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.
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.
WHOI President Susan Avery WHOI Director Laurence Madin
“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.”
Dr. Reddy and Dr. Camilli wrote that a byproduct of handing over the e-mails to BP is that the company now has access to the intellectual property attached to the e-mails, including advanced robotic navigation tools and sub-sea surveillance technologies that 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,” they wrote.
Subpoena Could Impact All Science
But ultimately, they wrote, the editorial was not about BP. Their experience is 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,” they wrote.
Their concerns are echoed by the leadership of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. President and Director Susan K. Avery and Director of Research Laurence P. Madin, also issued a statement that they are concerned about the erosion of academic freedom to study without being subject to investigation or litigation. They wrote that “the threat of litigation stifling scientific deliberation is real and troubling.”
BP is a company of scientists and engineers, and the subpoena served on Woods Hole is in no way an attack on science.
Geoff Morrell, BP spokesman
The case raises issues that go far beyond WHOI and BP, they wrote. “This situation leaves scientists and institutions vulnerable to litigants who could disregard context and use the material inappropriately and inaccurately in an effort to discredit their work,” Dr. Avery and Dr. Madin wrote.
The Benefit Of Academic Research
Academic research catalyzes innovation, stimulates the economy and enhances the quality of life, they wrote. “But history has proven time and again that academic institutions also supply invaluable qualities in responding to crises ranging from national security to public health. These qualities include capabilities based on knowledge and technology derived from decades of innovative research, together with a willingness to bring these skills to bear rapidly in emergency situations. Standards of academic research also include a commitment to unbiased and objective research, and both thoroughness in the collection and analysis of data, and prudence in observing strict standards of quality and peer review. Ironically, some of these very qualities that drew scientists into the response effort will suffer as the deliberative process is eroded.
“We urge professional scientific and higher education organizations, legal advocates, legislators, citizens, and businesses to examine these issues and support the establishment of adequate protections for researchers 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,” the two wrote.
In response, Geoff Morrell, BP United States head of communications, released the following statement. “BP is a company of scientists and engineers, and the subpoena served on Woods Hole is in no way an attack on science. The information and documents that BP sought to be produced by Woods Hole are typical of information and documents regularly sought in civil litigation, and the Court found, among other things, that there was a demonstrated need for the materials because there was no other source for them. The arguments made by Woods Hole to somehow exempt its materials from discovery were considered and rejected by the Court, and Woods Hole did not appeal the Court’s decision.”
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