Two scientists who helped estimate the size of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have been forced to hand over more than 3,000 personal e-mail messages. British Petroleum, which demanded the documents, says it needs the correspondence to defend itself in a lawsuit, but the scientists say the move threatens to chill future scientific deliberations.
Christopher M. Reddy and Richard Camilli, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, were commissioned by the Coast Guard to determine how much oil was spilling into the gulf after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010 led to a massive oil spill. The two, along with other scientists, estimated that 57,000 barrels of oil spilled out per day, which meant that a total of about five million barrels drained into the gulf.
The federal government has sued BP for its role in the disaster. If the government prevails in the suit, the company could be required to pay billions of dollars in fines.
To prepare its defense, BP requested and received more than 50,000 pages of documents from the scientists pertaining to how the two came up with their estimate, and also subpoenaed their confidential e-mails. The two handed over the e-mail messages last week, after the presiding judge magistrate in the U.S. District Court in New Orleans said they were required to do so, according to an op-ed the two scientists wrote in The Boston Globe.
A BP spokesman declined to comment.
The scientists wrote in their op-ed that BP would most likely find e-mail correspondence in which the scientists questioned their methods, reached dead ends, or modified their perspectives. But they wrote that “deliberation,” in which scientists challenge each other’s perspectives, is a common scientific practice.
“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,” the researchers wrote. “To ensure the research’s quality, scientific peers conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the work before it is published.”
The scientists said they are primarily concerned that there is little protection for personal e-mails when scientists get caught up in lawsuits. The two said this could put a chill on the deliberation process that could hurt scientific research in the future, as scientists could shy away from seeking outside expert advice.
“Open, scientific deliberation is critical to science,” the two wrote. “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.”
The scientists declined an interview with The Chronicle. In October 2010, Mr. Reddy wrote a commentary piece for The Chronicle expressing excitement about his high-profile involvement in estimating the amount of the spill.
Susan Avery, president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a nonprofit marine research and engineering institution in Massachusetts, said she is concerned that researchers may not want to help in future disasters if they have to deal with the legal hurdles that Mr. Reddy and Mr. Camilli have dealt with in the BP case. She said e-mail is a common way for researchers to connect with other experts.
“If you have to worry someone is going to subpoena your free remarks, what kind of debate can you have?” she said.
Ms. Avery said the e-mails also contained intellectual property such as computer codes, software, and information on undersea robotics that she fears the company can use or replicate for its own use.
She said the whole situation may be even more alarming for researchers than the Climategate controversy, in which the e-mail messages of researchers at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were hacked into and used by climate-change skeptics to assert that the scientists were fudging data.
“This could be even more scary, in the sense that the courts can do this, and they can do it to third parties that are not part of the litigation to begin with,” she said. “You feel in a way that you do not have an ability to defend yourself.”