Making science or making news?

Christopher Reddy, from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, comments on his experience doing science around the Deepwater Horizon oil accident in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago: “How Science Failed During the Gulf Oil Disaster”. His essay concentrates on the competing interests of scientists, journalists and policymakers.

We had published the study a little more than two months after gathering the data lightning fast for a scientific paper. But when I was the academic liaison at the oil spills headquarters the following month, I learned that those on the front line werent impressed by the publication of a paper a month after the crisis was over. Crisis responders often must make decisions on the spot, with imperfect information, even if it is risky.
During a crisis, peer review is the biggest problem with academia Juliette Kayyem, who was an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security during the Deepwater Horizon and teaches crisis response at Harvard, told me.

In this case, the scientists and bureaucrats both wanted peer review to validate straightforward buck-passing reciprocity. The government is often willing to do something expensive that might fail, as long as they can pin the blame on scientists; scientists will shoulder the blame as long as peer review covers them from other scientists’ criticism.

Missed is the sad fact that peer review is only as good as the probability of drawing two thoughtful reviewers from the pool.

Reddy and many others did a lot of good science during the Deepwater Horizon spill. In particular, they were able to discover and quantify some of the different dynamics of oil in deep water, including the formation of a deep water oil plume. As a study in mismatched priorities, Reddy describes his experience working on the problem, which drew overhyped attention from the press:

Government responders and industry had to respond to the press about the plumes, rather then focusing on higher priorities such as capping the well. And the public had to respond to these reports, too. I recall one Gulf resident asking me if he should sell his house and move away.

The investigation of the plume was where the most novel science was to be found, but was not the central issue for the engineers and other workers tasked with ending the spill and minimizing damage to shoreline ecosystems.

I wish I could say I wasnt thinking about scooping my peers, confirming the plume, and publishing a top-notch science paper, but that wouldnt be true. In fact, I called an editor of a journal from the bow of a boat asking him if he was interested in our findings.

Reddy’s essay lacks a clear moral, but he is revealing about his motives. He began by criticizing other scientists who drew press attention to the idea of a deep water plume, then joined them in the chase to find it.