Science vs. Policy: The controversy surrounding the deepwater drilling moratorium

Two weeks ago, a controversy surrounding the deepwater drilling moratorium, issued by President Obama, made headlines.  Late night edits to an executive report put together by the Dept. of the Interior (DOI) Office of the Inspector General (IG) and the White House lead to a misunderstanding between the engineers selected to work on the report and the government officials issuing the report.

In May, a team of seven engineers from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) issued a review of drilling practices and a list of safety recommendations on how to improve industry-drilling standards.  The seven experts did not write the report themselves; rather the DOI and White House collaborated on the final report.

When issued, the report favored a six-month drilling moratorium citing the “peer-review” process for the report recommendations.  The scientific team expressed concern over their work being associated with the moratorium, mentioning that the moratorium decision itself had not been peer-reviewed.  A subsequent investigation into the report was issued (see excerpt below) and the DOI apologized for its word choice.  DOI Secretary Ken Salazar also issued a letter of apology to all engineers involved and met with several of them individually.  The last I read, the engineers had accepted the DOI’s apology.

But what can we learn from this executive report snafu?  The moratorium controversy provides an excellent example of the fine line between science and policy.  Look at how easily this line can be crossed, even if that is not the scientist’s original intent.  Although Steve Black, energy advisor to Ken Salazar, said that he didn’t think readers would associate the peer-review process with the moratorium that is exactly what they did.

As scientists, it is our job to communicate our expertise to those who seek it.  However, it is also important for scientists to take an interest in how their voices are conveyed, and if at all possible, to read the reports before they are issued.  It is laudable that the DOI consulted engineers in this report at all, but I would hope in the future, the DOI would remind themselves of the importance of distinguishing between the “peer-review” process and the political process.

Politico Article: Links to Investigative Report and Salazar Letter of Apology

New York Times Green Blog: White House Editing Caused Drilling Ban Dispute


Excerpt from “Investigative Report of Federal Moratorium on Deepwater Drilling” explaining the engineers’ concerns over the connection to the moratorium, as well as the paragraphs of concern from the original report.


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