Peer Review Under Pressure

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, academic scientists learned some hard lessons in the face of effectively dealing with the media. Science is slow-moving, with findings oftentimes being released years following intensive research and peer review. The media, on the other hand, operates on the latest news — or what has happened in the last hour or two. When it came to the Gulf Oil Spill, scientists were ill-prepared to meet the demands that the media put on them, according to a recent report by Often, statements were taken out of context and took away from the real issue of stopping the oil flow, focusing more on the environmental impact of the spill.

Quick and easy answers are not in the realm of sound scientific research. Under the pressure of the here and now news cycle, peer pressure fell by the wayside as scientists felt compelled to give answers hastily when a more patient approach would have better served the situation.

One such example was the announcement that oil was flowing horizontally from the well, most likely caused by the high pressures at those depths. Later, it was discovered that a plume of oil, 3,600 feet deep, a mile wide, and 600 feet high was flowing from the well underwater. The media, however, initially picked up on this to mean that rivers of oil were present along the sea floor, causing an environmental disaster of unmatched proportions. Even though the impact on the environment from the spill was great, at the early stages of the spill scientists were still unsure about the implications of the horizontal oil seepage. Scientific peer review failed under the pressure of the media for answers, answers which scientists tried to provide … unsuccessfully.

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