Opinion: The oil's stain on science

An ecosystem biologist discusses how the effort to assess the oil spill's damage is stifling independent research

By | August 5, 2010

Functioning as an independent researcher in and around the Gulf of Mexico these days is no simple task. I study insect and plant communities in near-shore habitats fringing the Gulf, and my work has gotten measurably harder in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It's not hazardous conditions associated with oil and dispersants that are hampering our scientific efforts. Rather, it's the confidentiality agreements that come with signing up to work on large research projects shepherded by government entities and BP and the limited access to coastal areas if you're not part of those projects that are stifling the public dissemination of data detailing the environmental impact of the catastrophe.
Image: National Oceanographic and
Atmospheric Administration
Some Gulf scientists have already been snatched up by corporate consulting companies with offers of $250/hour. Others are badgered for their data by governmental agencies. Some of us desire to conduct our work without lawyers, government officials, or corporate officers peering over our shoulders. In the end, it may be the independent, non-biased researchers who can deliver credible scientific results that perform the crucial function of assessing the damage wrought by this disaster...if we survive professionally. Thanks to the National Science Foundation (NSF), some of us might. We don't work for BP or the government's linkurl:National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA);http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/about/nrda.html process, which is overseen by state, tribal and federal science agencies and is partially funded by BP. We are independent scientists who want to honestly and independently examine the effects of the oil spill. The ants, crickets, flies, bees, dragon flies, and spiders I study are important components of the coastal food web. They function as soil aerators, seed dispersers, pollinators, and food sources in complex ecosystems of the Gulf. Insects were not a primary concern when oil was gushing into the Gulf, but now they may be the best indicator of stressor effects on the coastal northern Gulf of Mexico. Those stressors include oil, dispersants, and cleanup activities. If insect populations survive, then frogs, fish, and birds will survive. If frogs, fish, and birds are there, the fishermen and the birdwatchers will be there. The Gulf's coastal communities will survive. But if the bugs suffer, so too will the people of the Gulf Coast. This is why my continued research is important: to give us an idea of just how badly the health of the Gulf Coast ecosystems has been damaged and what, if anything, we can do to stave off a full-blown ecological collapse. But I am having trouble conducting my research without signing confidentiality agreements or agreeing to other conditions that restrict my ability to tell a robust and truthful scientific story. I want to collect data to answer scientific questions absent a corporate or governmental agenda. I won't collect data specifically to support the government's lawsuit against BP nor will I collect data only to be used in BP's defense. Whereas I think damage assessment is important, it's my job to be independent -- to tell an accurate, unbiased story. But because I choose not to work for BP's consultants or NRDA, my job is difficult and access to study sites is limited. In southern Alabama back in late May, my PhD student's ant samples were taken away by a US Fish and Wildlife officer at a publicly accessible state Wildlife Management Area because our project hadn't been approved by Incident Command (also called the linkurl:Deepwater Horizon Response Unified Command;http://www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com/go/site/2931/ -- which is a joint program of BP and federal agencies, such as the Coast Guard, the Department of the Interior, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, assembled to respond to problems related to the April 20 blowout). We've had similar experiences in south Louisiana, where our research trip was halted after driving more than 150 miles to a study site. On the way to our sampling sites in Grand Isle, LA, were turned away by a sheriff's deputy blocking the road who said that he was told to allow no one who wasn't associated with BP or NRDA to pass that point. We've also been blocked by the Wisner Trust, one of the largest private land owners of marsh habitat in Louisiana, who in the past allowed LSU researchers access to their property. The lawyer representing the trust indicated that they are coordinating over 700 different people associated with BP and NRDA and that they simply cannot approve access for anyone else. People at the NSF think the work I conduct with my graduate students and eight collaborators on coastal food webs is important enough to fund through their Rapid Proposal Program. The truth is that we used our meager discretionary funds to hurriedly collect data in May before our study sites were oiled. Our group was lucky we weren't turned away by BP, sheriff's officers, or Coast Guard at that time. Now we're seeking a source of independent funding once again. I've been doggedly pursued by NRDA for data our team has and will be collecting. Three different people from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR) indicated interest in our data in repeated requests. In fact, I'll be going to a meeting with LDNR next Thursday (August 12) to further discuss my data. If I were to agree to submit my data, thus officially participating in NRDA, I would be required to sign a confidentiality agreement that lacks an officially specified end date. Exactly when my students or I would be able to publish any results from this research would be determined by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which would make that decision based on the status of a civil suit brought against BP. Were I to accept research funding directly from BP or from one of their contractors, I'd have to sign a contract that includes a three-year no publication clause. If I signed either a contract to work with NRDA or to work under BP or one of their contractors, I would have virtually unlimited access to study sites and more research support. But the price of the secrecy involved with participating in NRDA or conducting research under the auspices of BP is too high. My student and I couldn't discuss our data, results or experiences for three years or until the litigation against BP is settled. More importantly, we couldn't publish any of our results. I couldn't write this essay. The data could be tied up for years in litigation just like that of the scientists who participated in NRDA after the Exxon Valdez incident. Every day it takes resolve to continue on the path of honest and open science on the effect of stressors on the smallest creatures on the coast. If current trends continue, I fear that the independent researcher may be added to the list of species that will be endangered by this ecological disaster. __linkurl:Linda Hooper-Bui;http://entomology.lsu.edu/faculty/hooper_files/hooper.htm is an ecosystem biologist at Louisiana State University A&M and the LSU Agricultural Center who specializes in disturbance ecology of ants and other arthropods. She coauthored a chapter called "Consequences of Ant Invasions" in the book linkurl:__Ant Ecology__,;http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199544639.do published this year. She loves to spend time mentoring students and has an active undergraduate and graduate student research program.__ Editor's note - Pete Tuttle, USFWS environmental contaminant specialist and Dept of Interior NRDA coordinator, told __The Scientist__ that he was unaware of any samples being taken or access to study sites being restricted by federal, state, or tribal officials associated with NRDA. He did, however, confirm that researchers wishing to formally participate in NRDA must sign a contract that includes a confidentiality agreement. Tuttle said that the agreement prevents signees from releasing information from studies and findings until authorized by the Department of Justice at some later and unspecified date. "This is a civil lawsuit [against BP]," Tuttle said. "We are protecting our interests and our case. It's not designed to squelch anything, but just to ensure that the integrity of the case is protected." __The Scientist__ contacted a BP representative to respond to Hooper-Bui's claims, but BP declined to comment.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Gulf scientists "on the sidelines";http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57504/
[23trd June 2010]*linkurl:New NSF grants for oil spill;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57441/
[19th May 2010]*linkurl:Scientists brace for oil impact;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57410/
[17th May 2010]

Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 9

August 5, 2010

I hope all you environmental moonbats are happy about all the HOPE and CHANGE we are seeing out of this lame Obama administration.\n\nThat's what happens when you elect a community organizer with no experience other then wasting the taxpayer's money.
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

August 5, 2010

What you describe is illegal. What you need is an attorney, and I suggest your first stop should be the ACLU since your civil rights are being violated in the name of site control. \n\nYour second stop should be the newspapers and TV stations around the Gulf. Be persistent, be tough, have a clear, succinct sound bite message. \n\nThird should be making the rounds of environmental lawyers. See: http://www.alabamaenvironmentalattorneys.com/ \nhttp://www.louisianaenvironmentallawyers.com/\n\nWith attorneys, one has to be persistent, keep beating the bushes until you find what you want. Don't give up and don't get waylaid by either of: \n1. Discouragement \n2. Pressure tactics for a retainer. \n\nYour case should be taken pro-bono and it should be taken up with enthusiasm. \n\nLast, become a smuggler and enlist help. Go out into the bayous and ask for help from the cajuns who live there. Tell them what you need. Find ways to hide your samples, and enlist help from colleagues and friends around the country to receive and hold them for you. \n\nDon't give up, never give in!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

August 5, 2010

I have been constantly chilled by the lack of true freedom exhibited by the government in response to the BP spill. When reporters are not allowed access within miles of any site as determined by NRDA and threatened with $30k fines and BP security can stop people from access to public sites, I truly wonder about our perceived freedoms. If one thinks oneself is "free" just try to walk on a public beach in any of the areas where they are forbidden by NRDA or BP.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 9

August 5, 2010

What a joke.. they're an arm of the Democratic Party. They'll let this administration do whatever it pleases.\n\nIf this spill happened on Bush's watch, the ACLU would be calling you!\n\nThis points out what reality of having groups like the press, MSM and ACLU bought and paid for by one party. Liberals would never admit it but more damage is done and ignore on their watch then when conservatives are in power. I'm not condoning what harm is done to the environment during one administration, but pointing out what happens when the watchdogs take sides. The little people and things like the environment always pay.
Avatar of: Herb Ruhs

Herb Ruhs

Posts: 9

August 5, 2010

Chris Mooney's insightful book, The Republican War on Science, might need to be renamed the Republicrat War on Science. If the truth is that we are all, in fact, born equal then the Class War might be better understood as a war on truth itself. The truth, the sacred chalice of truly scientific endeavor, is the enemy of injustice, therefore has no constituency since one persons injustice is always another persons opportunity.\n\nIf indeed there are historians of the future that survive the effects of the destruction of the climate and the oceans they may well focus on the popularity of professional lying using "scientific" techniques and how it so distorted the reality testing ability of our populations that we were launched on our specie's blind walk off a short pier.\n\nWhat is not featured in the article is an assessment of what percentage of "scientist" are willing to sign these willing liars contracts.\n\nherb
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

August 5, 2010

Interesting!
Avatar of: M Wentz

M Wentz

Posts: 1

August 6, 2010

Linda Hooper-Bui should be congratulated on her courageous stance and for publishing this article. As a member of the general public, rather than the scientific community, I was appalled to hear how well-funded vested interests are coming before open scientific inquiry yet again. I hope to hear more about this where I should, in the front pages of the newspapers...
Avatar of: John Sibert

John Sibert

Posts: 1

August 6, 2010

As an Alaska resident and the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation director during the Exxon Valdez spill and follow-on hearings, this sounds very familiar. While the Spill Commission was arguing over potential litigation and the media was highlighting pictures of oiled sea otters and lesser murrelets, I raised the issue of the impact on phytoplankton. The US DOJ attorney with the Commission publically stated that "we can't litigate phytoplankton"! \n\nIn 1990, Foundation granted the funds for phytoplankton studies and a bouy in the Gulf to monitor the top 20 feet of sea, but it was too little and too late. The herring have still not returned!
Avatar of: John B Brown

John B Brown

Posts: 1

August 11, 2010

Now is the time to write to the White House objecting to this fundamentally illegal and unconstitutional restriction of the collection and publication of public information and demanding a stop to this very nasty practice of bowing to forces of obfuscation and lies from the oil patch. Be sure to include this:\n[http://www.the-scientist.com/templates/trackable/display/news.jsp?type=news&o_url=news/display/57610&id=57610]\n
Avatar of: Parker Jackson

Parker Jackson

Posts: 1

August 22, 2010

I was recently in Grand Isle and the surrounding bays, marshes and beaches and experienced the same blockade to areas since we weren't associated with BP or NRDA. We were kicked off marsh islands in Barataria Bay, kept off beaches and not allowed to drive on certain roads. \n\nIndependent research like your is more important that most Americans realize. \n\nVisit www.gulfactionnow.com to learn about our visit to the Gulf and other important info about this crisis.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

August 24, 2010

The essay would be more convincing if it weren't laden with phrases that suggest an emotional approach rather than a scientific one - and a clear pre-conceived bias. And since when is it legal to remove samples of any kind from public land without a permit?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

August 24, 2010

I concur with the previous post in questioning the veracity of this article. It simply sounds too much like another voice in a choir of antiestablishment rhetoric and apparently NO ONE has bothered to fact check the events that were described. The author has received considerable attention on the basis of a series of rather thinly documented assertions. Let's see some data.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

August 25, 2010

It is legal to collect samples from public land with an approved scientific collecting permit, which Dr. Hooper-Bul undoubtedly has. It is very worrying when long-term projects that rely on repeated access to sites are derailed. I understand the sensitivity of the lawsuit, but to commandeer every study site in the region smacks of interference in objective science.

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