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Take It With a Grain of (Sea) Salt: Gulf Microbe Study Was Funded by BP

Scientists at Berkeley this week announced that microbes had eaten oil so quickly the Gulf's oil plumes are now undetectable. They disclosed that BP funded their research. The media didn't.

Earlier this week, majornewsoutlets ran with headlines about how a new microbe has been found eating up BP’s oil, and how microbes have degraded the hydrocarbons so efficiently that the vast plumes of oil in the Gulf are now undetectable. No joke.

A bit skeptical of all the oil-is-mostly-gone claims, the day that microbe study was released we chose instead to focus on the Gulf’s thousands of dead fish. Lucky for us.

MIT’s Science Tracker, in a post published yesterday, noted that the microbe study was conducted by U.C. Berkeley scientists through a grant with the Energy Biosciences Institute, and that the Energy Biosciences Institute is funded by none other than BP, through a $500 million, 10-year grant. (To the researchers' credit, they also mentioned the funding in their press release — you just had to read about three-quarters of the way through.)

That relationship shouldn't have been a total surprise. In July, news reports had noted the U.C. Berkeley-BP connection. Activists had protested the $500 million in funding, worried that the funding source would influence the science. The response from U.C. Berkeley? From the Associated Press, emphasis added:

But UC Berkeley officials say the institute has nothing to do with the Gulf spill, and the university has no plans to end its research partnership with BP.

That was late July — less than a month before Berkeley Lab scientist Terry Hazen announced that his team’s research found that the deep water plumes “went away fairly rapidly after the well was capped.”

While having BP as a funding source doesn’t invalidate the research, in the very least it’s probably at least worth mentioning in the same breath.

Separately, a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which produced plume findings two weeks ago, made the point that sometimes both scientists and reporters overreach when describing research — scientists to have their work recognized, and reporters to make a story sound more impressive, or in the case of the Gulf, to fit a more exciting narrative that pits scientists against each other.

“The research added new information to an unfolding investigation, but the media seemed more interested in whether our work decided whether NOAA or the Georgia group was right,” Christopher Reddy, a Woods Hole scientist, wrote on CNN regarding his experience sharing research with the press.

For the record, here’s what we wrote about the Woods Hole study:

And then I know we pointed this out on Wednesday, but independent scientists kept piling on the research this week about their own spill findings — some outright contradicted the government’s report; others added to what we know about the oil’s movement and location.

The latest, released Thursday, seems to fall into the latter category. Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution measured a plume of dispersed oil that’s “at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf,” they announced. The Wall Street Journal noted that’s the size of Manhattan.

Readers can judge where we stand in this debate.

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