In 2010, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were brought in by BP to help advise. But after the US government sued BP, the company went after the Institution, subpoenaeing private correspondence and other documents on top of the 50,000 documents that the WHOI had supplied voluntarily. Brooke talks to Richard Camilli, an oceanographer at the WHOI, who says he believes this kind of request can compromise independent scientific inquiry.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2010 in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were brought in by BP to figure out why the blowout preventer, meant to stop the flow of oil in an emergency, failed. After the scientists finished their work, they spent a year writing up their research in two papers for the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But when the government sued BP over the spill, BP subpoenaed not just the scientists’ data but also, quote, “any transmission or exchange of any information, whether orally or in writing, including without limitation any conversation or discussion related to their research.” The court eventually sided with BP, forcing the scientists to hand over more than 3,000 emails and documents, on top of more than the 50,000 they’d given the court voluntarily. Rich Camilli, an oceanographer with WHOI, says BP didn't like their findings.
RICHARD CAMILLI: In particular, they didn't like the daily flow rate. We calculated that to be about 57,000 barrels per day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what did they say?
RICHARD CAMILLI: They’ve consistently suggested lower flow rates, initially 1,000 barrels, then 5,000 barrels and, more recently, 25, 30,000 barrels per day. Initially, when BP sent its subpoena, it stated that it was interested in understanding our work better. Then in later court filings they made accusations of misconduct, so there's this question of are they trying to understand or impugn? And based on what's transpired over the past nine months or so, it looks like they’re really out there to try and impugn us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you ended up handing over to BP a bunch more information and personal communications because the court said you had to?
RICHARD CAMILLI: They said that we had to up to a certain date, and that date was March 10th 2010.* And the reason that the courts decided upon that date was because I had been asked by the Department of Interior to serve as a co-author on a report that was pretty much for archival purposes. I agreed to do so. It's a matter of professional courtesy. And because I signed my name to a publication that was in the Department of Interior and, therefore, part of the government, I was considered to have ties with one of litigants. Because of that, because I, I signed my name to that as a co-author, all of my colleagues were then subject to hand over their information, their e-mails and such.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if you hadn't done this paper for free for this government agency, you wouldn’t have had to turn over all these documents and neither would your colleagues?
RICHARD CAMILLI: That's probably true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the problem here that what is standard deliberative process can be easily taken out of context? RICHARD CAMILLI: Certainly, there's an element of that. As scientists, we test our hypotheses. Sometimes we play devil’s advocate. Sometimes we’ll pursue paths that lead to dead ends. That’s what we were doing. It’s the standard scientific method. But scientific finding should be weighed on its own evidence. We wouldn't need to examine Isaac Newton's e-mails to assess if his ideas on gravity were correct.
We were not, are not, expert witnesses for any of the litigants. We were called in basically as bystanders to help out in an emergency situation. You might think of it in the context of if there's a person standing on the street corner that witnesses a car accident and is asked to help with some of the injured passengers. Should you then go and examine that good Samaritan's e-mails?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This month, you were deposed by BP, right?
RICHARD CAMILLI: That's correct, and I can't speak to any of the specifics because of the confidentiality orders, but I can say that generally speaking it appears that the intent was to try and take information out of context and suggest that the authors were not in agreement or that the work was somehow suspect.
When my colleagues and I worked together on this, we challenged each other to try and make sure that we were on the right track, and we’re very confident in our work. The scientific process, let’s keep in mind, has this incredibly powerful mechanism for self correction. When we publish our work, we make it public for the scrutiny of others, and that allows us to examine and continually refine that process. And it's worked incredibly well for centuries.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why should this matter to the average nonscientist?
RICHARD CAMILLI: What we were trying to do was understand a disaster and try and improve the public health and safety. You can extend that and just look at our ability as humans to understand our world. When you try to stop that understanding through the use of legal mechanisms, that creates a chilling effect. I’ve been told by other scientists that if they were in the same circumstances, they would not have agreed to help out with the analysis, in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you were king, how would you change the situation?
RICHARD CAMILLI: [LAUGHS] Right now, not only were my co-authors and I targeted, but also the journals themselves are being targeted. And I’d say as a first step, we should have protections against organizations going after these journals, when there is a clear conflict of interest by these organizations that are seeking this information. The courts must first have an adjudicated finding of fact suggesting that there’s probable cause for misconduct before forcing these journals to hand over this information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Otherwise, it’s just a fishing expedition?
RICHARD CAMILLI: A fishing expedition or, or maybe worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, thank you very much.
RICHARD CAMILLI: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rich Camilli is an oceanographer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. We asked BP for a comment and received this response from spokesman Scott Dean, quote,
“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.”
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Correction: Richard Camilli wrote On the Media to tell us that the cutoff date was actually March 10, 2011, not 2010.
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