Lubchenco Challenged on Release By White House of Gulf Spill Pie Chart

A riveting Friday afternoon plenary, “Lessons from the Gulf,” became most interesting during the question-and-answer period, when freelance journalist Joe Davis challenged National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco concerning a pie chart that had been used during an August 4th White House press briefing on developments in the BP Gulf of Mexico crisis.

The chart was part of a scientific paper that had been released before it had been peer-reviewed. Lubchenco said in that briefing that “at least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system. And most of the remainder is degrading rapidly or is being removed from the beaches.”

Davis took issue with the administration’s decision to release a report before it had been peer reviewed, and then using that as an excuse to not provide the data behind it. “Is this a way to release scientific findings?” he asked. He pointed out that White House climate official Carol Browner had discussed the findings on talk shows before they were even provided to the press, implying she had tried to spin the information to show progress the administration had made in cleaning up of the leaked oil.

Lubchenco acknowledged the “legitimate question” and said it illustrates the challenge in communicating findings in a way that is both accurate and timely. She said the preference is to use peer reviewed data, but “in an event that’s moving so rapidly … peer review takes weeks or more.” So the administration needs to balance the need to share information quickly while “respecting the need for independent validation.”

Lubchenco said the administration was committed to sharing the oil leak information as soon as possible once it was convinced the data were accurate.

Writing in an e-mail interview following the conference, Davis said he was unsatisfied with Lubchenco’s response. The Obama White House “tried to bamboozle the American press and public by spinning the science, and failed in the end. It is an insult to science and the press that they would trumpet their preferred conclusions and then refuse to disclose the data and equations they were allegedly based on,” he said.

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