The Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill on the Scientific Community

There are reasons why the whole scientific community would be completely overwhelmed by aspects of the Gulf oil Spill, since the disaster affects everything related to science and since science is being challenged in global and unprecedented ways.

Even if the scientists are not directly involved in response to the spill, they could be indirectly affected by competition for personnel, resources and money. Most scientists work in the government or at universities. Universities and the government are dependent on an increasingly tight budgets for research, investigation and physical resources.

 The competition for scarce money grants, alone, will create drama for some time to come. Even scientists who work for commercial firms will be affected as new technologies, ramped up production schedules or the hunt for new spill related products and processes are demanded to remediate the consequences of the worst man made oil spill in history.

Medical scientists will be dealing with the health effects of exposure to the oil, the gases and the dispersant, all of which have some form of toxicity or challenge to humans, animals and microbes. This means that physicians, forensic medical professional, veterinarians, all specialties of clinicians and mental health professionals will be handling, treating, studying and dealing with the effects of the spill for a time.

The engineers will be on edge for the rest of their careers and for as long as deep water oil extraction continues. Of course, drilling engineers will be concerned about capping the current spill and cleaning up the spilled oil. But the engineers who design, work on and study the equipment, the environment and the forces involved at such atmospheric depth will find their work to be under government and public scrutiny for decades.

 Also, engineers who work in alternative energy sources have to take this opportunity to get funding and to get to work on making those alternative energy sources a reality.

Biological scientists will have the first opportunity, ever, to observe, test, and to study the worst fossil fuel related marine and riparian environmental disaster in history. They will have to allocate scarce resources between immediate concerns, existing scientific endeavors and non essential scientific endeavors.

Physical scientists have the full range of extreme natural phenomenon to study. In addition, there are studies of the extremes that man made substances and structures undergo and cause. From the physics of the abyssal marine environment to the effect of messing with massive underground and underwater pools of oil on the faults and fractures of the earth’s crust, to the effects of the warming oil on atmospheric conditions, physical scientists will find it hard to locate a specialty that does not have an application or a job to do in the Gulf.

All scientists are operating within a very humbling environment. Little is known and much is inaccessible in the Gulf of Mexico. The depths involved, the identifying factors about the mass of oil that sits under the broken well, the currents, tides and global and long term atmospheric consequences as well as a host of other needed facts are something that will remain elusive for the lifetimes of most scientists who will be involved in the spill and remediation efforts.

Social scientists immediately have to deal with the short and long term programs, budgets, politics and social consequences of the related health, economic and personal damages that have occurred as results of the BP Oil Spill. They will have to start developing budgets, based on what they know now, that will not be enacted into law for ten years. They must operate in a complex polarization of socio political issues. Many humans in the gulf have had their livelihoods decimated by oil. They must compete with those who gain their wealth and livelihoods from the profits of oil, including politicians and judges who see no conflict in making important legal decisions in favor of the oil corporations while getting the bulk of their campaign money or while investing heavily in oil stocks.

Finally, there will be competing and armed camps who are working against each other. Scientists who already disagree with each other about the best way, theory, principle, observation, model or tool will continue to disagree. Scientists who work for the oil industry will be at odds with scientists who work against the oil industry. Even politically or commercially non aligned scientists will be working under varying motivations and to support various ends or goals that can change as they undergo experience or learn fact in ways that affect their values, ideologies and beliefs.

In summary, every kind of scientist and every type of science will have something to study or to do in relation to the gulf oil spill, even if they have no relationship to the gulf, but must compete for scarce resources. There will be humbling reminders of how little we know as well as humbling reminders that scientists can and will work against each other in an era of increasing political, intellectual, corporate and social polarization over fossil fuel dependency.