Why open science failed after the BP gulf oil spill

Oil spill in the Gulf needed more scientific study.

Oil spill in the Gulf needed more scientific study.

By , originally published on ars technica.

At last month’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of science, there was an inspiring talk about how the open sharing of scientific data could provide new avenues for research. But the same session also provided a cautionary tale of all the factors that can get in the way of effective sharing of data. That talk came courtesy of Vernon Asper, a researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi. Asper normally studies natural hydrocarbon seeps on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and found himself dragged into the media spotlight amidst a swirl of competing interests as he tried to study the oil spill.

Asper said that there was a clear “truth” about the spill that everybody was interested in: how much oil was spilling into the Gulf, and at what rate. But, in the absence of any way of directly measuring it, everybody was forced into relying on indirect ways of estimating the flow. If the gulf oil spill were a situation where nobody had money riding on the final outcome, these estimates might be combined to provide a rough final number along with a sense of the uncertainty associated with that number. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a case where nobody cared.

According to Asper, there were three groups that had a vested interest in the final value of the amount of oil spilling out into the gulf. The companies (like BP and Halliburton) that had been drilling the well wanted the number to be small. The media, which can attract eyeballs through drama, wanted the number to be large. Scientists, in general, just wanted the actual number.

Here, the scientists shared an ally in the government, which also wanted the most accurate number possible. Unfortunately, the government and scientists had different ideas about what to do with the numbers they were generating. Researchers, as is their tendency, wanted to share it through collaborations and publications. The government, however, was preparing for the inevitable court case against the companies involved, and wanted to keep the numbers it generated private until they could be used in the legal arena.

The end result of all these competing interests was a complete absence of coordination. Research ships (including one used by Asper) gravitated to the site, but nobody knew who was doing what. He described how they’d identify a research vessel using radar, then call them on the radio to informally ask what sorts of samples the ship was there to obtain. This ad-hoc system helped, but there was still a lot of cases where the same work was done by multiple vessels. At the same time, if one ship’s experiments failed due to technical reasons, there was no mechanism for them to let anyone else know, which might have allowed another ship to make up for the loss.

From Asper’s perspective, things really went bad when the data gathering ended. “The press was waiting to greet the boat when it came in at 5am on a Sunday morning,” he said. None of the researchers he was with had any expectations that this would happen, and no media training to prepare them for it. “We talked as openly as we would to another scientist,” Asper said, saying he was “amazed someone finally cared” about the sort of research he did. His university encouraged him to blog about the experience, and members of the media also found his blog.

Continue reading article on ars technica.

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