The Problem of “Confidentiality” in Oil Spill Research

Here is a quote from a New York Times op-ed columnist based in Baton Rouge regarding scientific research into the BP oil spill:

Transparency is vital to successful science: researchers must subject their proposals to the scrutiny of colleagues, and publications require peer review. When it comes to field research, scientists need equal access to the same sites to test competing hypotheses.

This statement is a fact about the progress of the scientific community.  But not only is it relevant to scientific research, it is also a poignant expose’ on the role of our democratic system.  “Transparency is vital to successful science,” and it is also vital to successful government .  There is not a single instance (save that of state security) in which a lack of government transparency supports the public good.  Besides national security, hiding the processes involved in any government action serves not the will of the people, but the agenda of elites in power.  Period.

So, the article today in The Advocate, “Oil leak science reviews mixed,” is not concerning in that the state did not agree with the conclusions of the researchers, but that the article gives not details whatsoever on the substance of the findings.  Don’t care? Don’t really think it matters?  Fine if you’re in support of more government control and government power.  But support of said policy is not only naive’, it is destructive to our democratic system.

It was the job of H-SERT (the research team) to lay out the information so decision makers could have it at their disposal.

  What about having that information available to Louisianians?  What about having that information available to the people who elect those decision makers?.  That information should be readily available to the public.  So that when we see the policy process take place, we are able to form an opinion as to the effectiveness of the resulting policy. Yes, there will be environmentlists screaming for more radical policy due to their interpretation of the research.  But there will also be those (and I believe this number would far outweigh the radicals) who present a coherent argument for the responsible fiscal management of the crisis based on rational interpretation of results.  This discourse is the foundation of our country, and the perpetuation of democracy is absolutely dependent upon the public having access to all relevant information to make political decisions.

One might point out that in The Advocate articlesome conclusions were revealed.   One would be correct in this assessment.  However, this argument merely supports my point about transparency.  It should not be the government’s decision what information should or should not be available to us.  That type of policy is not only insulting to democracy, but it is insulting to your intelligence and to mine.  Stating that the process is transparent because the government reveals certain tid-bits of cherry-picked data is not valid. 

Now, to be fair, the state has done a far better job than the federal government (or BP for that matter) in providing transperency with regard to scientific findings.  The New York Times op-ed piece on scientific research opposes government discrimination against independent researchers, citing several cases in which independent scientists were not given access to key areas of study in the Gulf.  That is not necessarily the point I am trying to make, so I won’t touch that issue.  But Hooper makes a compelling case for less state control over the process:

 The problem is that researchers for BP and the government are being kept quiet, and their data is unavailable to the rest of the community. When damages to the gulf are assessed in court or Congress, there might not be enough objective data to make a fair judgment.

Some suspect that the oil company is focusing its research on gathering material to support its legal case; we can’t know for sure, though, because researchers who get money from BP must sign strict three-year confidentiality agreements. In any case, whatever research comes out of BP’s efforts will be tainted by secrecy.

 The federal government’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment program…has amassed enormous amounts of data but offered only vague promises to make it public, and it likewise requires confidentiality agreements from the researchers it finances. This research will probably be used against BP in court; chances are, then, that it will not be subject to outside scrutiny out of fear that a weakness in the government’s case could be exposed.

I do not understand this stated “fear that a weakness in the government’s case could be exposed.” I realize research can be skewed in the court of law.  I also understand it can be skewed in the court of public opinion.  But in no way should fear that these distortions present obstacles for government transparency.  This type of secrecy is inherently contrary to the values and principles of our constitution.

Honestly, I could care less how the legal process turns out.  BP got hammered by the feds and by the public.  And they’re going to get hammered by the legal process as well.  We’re going to continue to stick it to BP with or without government transperency. The public, the democracy, will allow nothing less.

So, lets get the rest of the policy right in the interim.  Let’s have transparency in government. Let’s have civil discourse on how best to protect our state from these types of disasters in the future.  Let’s have limited government and less state control.  And let us have full access to all information necessary to come to these conclusions because, barring this transparency we are no different from totalitarian regimes we claim to stand against. Let’s have democracy.



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