Panelists review oil disaster studies

The consensus among the panel of scientists who spoke at the concluding program for the three-day-long “Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference,” was that while an impressive amount of research has been done in the wake of the 2010 Macondo Well-Deepwater Horizon blowout, more needs to be done and in greater collaboration.

The first meeting of its kind was deemed a success, but it was also agreed that more conferences and workshops are needed to put the pieces together and determine what the data really means.

Panelist John Farrington, provost and vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and scientist emeritus at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, urged more studies that include humans as part of the ecosystem. He also stressed the importance of the research for understanding future events across the globe, and getting the research published and put in a database for the use of future generations. He lauded the involvement of students at the conference and for “asking exciting questions only students can ask.”

Panelist Steven Murawski, professor and the St. Petersburg Partnership–Peter Betzer endowed chairman of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida, urged risk-taking and keeping a bigger picture of research in mind to benefit future events that will vary in location and size, to “do the globe a favor.”

Maureen Lichtveld, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Global Environmental Health Sciences at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, represented human health research on the panel. Lichtveld urged community engagement, so that research is done “with the community not to the community.” She also stressed the importance of being good stewards of funding and the need to sustain current research five or more years down the line.

Panelist Rex Caffey, professor of natural resource economics at LSU, stressed the need for more work in the realm of socioeconomics, which looks at how economic activity affects social processes. Because much of the research being done is sequestered due to the ongoing legal battles, Caffey said it is a problem not to have access to those studies, largely part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

When the public does not have the best information available, people tend to draw their own conclusions and sometimes emotions can trump facts, Caffey said.

It is also important to keep in mind who sets the research agenda and who decides what is most important, Caffey said.

Holly Bamford, deputy assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service, said that she saw many encouraging outcomes of the conference and called it a “small win.” She said there was a good dialogue and debate on dispersant, but more discussion on that topic is needed.

Bamford stressed the need for more data-sharing workshops and using the data to reach conclusions and answer the “so what?” question. She says she saw phenomenal research throughout the conference, but overall, it is still in the beginning phase.

The two words used with considerable frequency during the final talk included the need for filling in the “gaps,” and the need for greater “synthesis.”

For non-scientists, Rita Colwell, board chairwoman of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, defined the two terms in the oil disaster context in the following way.

For gaps, Colwell said that the scientists are working to figure out what is not being studied and determine what needs to be studied.

The two biggest gap areas are in public health and socioeconomics, she said, and they will be priorities for next year’s conference.

Proving a linkage between health effects and oil or dispersant exposure is difficult and complex, Colwell said, in part because people have different genetic constitutions and can react very differently to the same environmental factors. Exposure to toxins can act as a trigger factor, she said, but it can be very hard to show that the exposure or consumption is the direct cause of a symptom or disease.

The field of epigenetics, which looks at how the environment and personal choices can influence one’s genetic code, is a new area of study, she said.

As for synthesis, Colwell explained that research on the oil disaster involves many different types of scientists, including chemists measuring chemicals in the water, physicists determining how water circulates, biologists studying animals and sediment, microbiologists studying how microbes interact with the oil and dispersant, and health experts looking at the physical and mental effects on humans.

Making the connections is complicated, Colwell said, but it is critical to understand how all the pieces fit together. Before scientists can determine the best way to truly restore the ecosystem, they must have a fundamental understanding of how the ecosystem works, she said.

“This is the first step,” Colwell said, of the conference. “Next year will be even more exciting with a whole new year’s worth of data.”