BP subpoenaed the emails of scientists involved in studying the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, hoping to gather more evidence that will favor them in their ongoing legal battle over the amount of oil actually spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. This has sparked controversy, dismay, and worry among the scientists involved.
Do not take that to mean that the scientists have something to hide. They have supplied BP with all of their data and how they came to their conclusions that 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled in the Gulf. The scientists are concerned because taking offhand comments, the throwing around of ideas, and other such communications typically held in emails are not evidence for anything. Part of the scientific process is proposing ideas and then realizing that they don’t make sense. However, with BP taking such ideas as evidence, these offhand thoughts become evidence and could just obscure the case. A deeper concern is that if taking emails as evidence become the precedent, then scientists may begin to alter their behavior. Two of the scientists whose emails were seized, Christopher Reddy and Richard Camilli, wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe, in which they said, “In future crises, scientists may censor or avoid deliberations, and more importantly, be reluctant to volunteer valuable expertise and technology that emergency responders don’t possess. Open, scientific deliberation is critical to science.”
I agree with the scientists that this is a worrisome precedent to be setting. The scientists whose emails have been seized are not even part of the lawsuit; they simply are trying to help the legal process by sharing their data and findings. The fact that their email records could be subpoenaed is chilling and does not bode well for the future of science in this country.