If you haven’t read the Boston Globe Op-Ed, you must. Chris Reddy and Richard Camilli (oil spill research rockstars at Wood’s Hole) yesterday revealed information that made me feel physically ill:
Late last week, we reluctantly handed over more than 3,000 confidential e-mails to BP, as part of a subpoena from the oil company demanding access to them because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster lawsuit brought by the US government. We are accused of no crimes, nor are we party to the lawsuit. We are two scientists at an academic research institution who responded to requests for help from BP and government officials at a time of crisis.
Reddy and Camilli’s most impassioned argument noted that public perception of the scientific process, and thus the integrity of scientists themselves could be fundamentally questioned as BP tries to wiggle its way out of paying massive fines:
BP claimed that it needed to better understand our findings because billions of dollars in fines are potentially at stake. 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.
Deliberation is an integral part of the scientific method that has existed for more than 2,000 years; e-mail is the 21st century medium by which these deliberations now often occur. During this process, researchers challenge each other and hone 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.
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.
Here at DSN we’re all very concerned. Personally, I would be abhorred at such an invasion of privacy–especially in a scenario where I offered help pro bono in the face of a disaster, like many scientists did during the BP spill.
But some parties seem less concerned. Wired news summed up the different arguments:
Reaction to these fears has been mixed. Marine biologists Kevin Zelnio and Miriam Goldstein of Deep Sea News both tweeted their concerns, with Goldstein worrying about the precedent and Zelnio wondering if BP will “treat oceanographers as dishonestly as climate denialists treated researchers.”
Science policy expert Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado was more sanguine, writing on his blogthat publicly supported scientists should expect to share their full deliberations. “Besides, good science, even when messy, does not need to be hidden from view,” wrote Pielke.
Attorney David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council also said that concerns may be overblown, though he preferred to talk about the legal dynamics shaping BP’s request.
Whereas federal law has established special protections for attorney-client privileges, doctor-patient confidentiality and journalists shielding their sources, there are no protections for academic scientists. Requests like BP’s are considered on a case-by-case basis.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if an academic institution went to the Supreme Court and said we need another exemption for academic research,” Pettit said.
Regardless, we need more legal protection for researchers. Reddy and Camilli’s home institution, WHOI, issued a parallel statement laying out some of the legal concerns spurred by the email subpoenas:
This case raises issues that go far beyond our institution and BP. Despite earlier Supreme Court recognition of the importance of the deliberative scientific process, there remains inadequate legislation and legal precedent to shield researchers and institutions who are not parties to litigation from having to surrender pre-publication materials, including deliberative emails and notes, manuscript drafts, reviewers’ comments, and other private correspondence. 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. In addition, there is no guarantee that the costs, both time and material, incurred by an institution in response to court-mandated requests will be reimbursed by the litigants.
The materials that BP demanded may include intellectual property, hard won by the researchers. While there are protections that can be placed by the court and through confidentiality orders, experts in the litigant parties receiving these materials may obtain insight into the creation of this intellectual property and be able to replicate it for their own programs even if they do not directly take it. It is unlikely that institutions such as WHOI would be able to identify or prosecute this infringement of intellectual property rights.
This can of worms has just been opened, so lets keep the dialogue open–lest it be forgotten like the oil still festering in the deep.