Good Science – Has It Become a Victim of Political Agendas?

IMIF Buffet Luncheon

Date: Tuesday 23rd October 2012

Host: Renaud Barbier-Emery

Venue: Ince and Co LLP, International House, 1 St Katharine’s Way, London, E1W 1AY

Speaker: Dr Karen Purnell, Managing Director, ITOPF

Subject: “Good Science – Has It Become A Victim of Political Agendas?”

buffet-luncheon-23rd-october-2012Colin de la Rue, the head of shipping at Ince & Co LLP has closely worked with Karen over many years, whose entire career has been based around science including nuclear.

ITOPF is composed of entirely scientists, no lawyers, not even on the board of directors.  It is a non-profit organisation which has a membership tanker tonnage of 339 million GT under its wing.

Accidents occur and will always occur.  ITOPF aims to prevent accidents / pollution and better prepare the industry for dealing with the consequences for when they do occur.

The media tends towards bad news and extreme finding without further research, even if they contradict scientific facts.

Good science is the foundation of the advice given regarding oil spills.  ITOPF educates and works with governments to help prevent spills and they work with projects in early stages to prevent accidents from happening.

Karen emphasised that many headlines are often greatly exaggerated.  Of course there have been incidents which have had significant effect on the local economies and environmental damage which have been rightly compensated; however there have been some cases where claims have run into $100’s of millions which have hardly any scientific evidence to support the claim and the oil spills are used to profit either financially or politically.  This was reinforced in 2006 when ITOPF was involved in six of the top ten estimates of pool claims where, out of those six, four of them involved claims with unsupporting evidence for environmental damage.

The scientific facts on the aftermath of the Deepwater horizon entirely contradict the environmentalists who claim that even now, two years after the oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem is collapsing, that there are dead fish, but no dead fish can be seen.   The news reports on predicted devastation after the incident, but does not report on the after studies which show that this is not the case.

Beaches and fish still survive and there is no proof that oil kills free swimming adult fish.

In more ‘basic’ fisheries in the world, the fishermen lack the knowledge of whether it is safe to catch and eat fish which have been affected by an oil spill and therefore turn to their government for guidance.

Science proves that the commercial fisheries should recover after two to three years.  Now the Gulf has almost recovered proving that ‘Mother Nature’ restores the environment better than us, who often do more harm than good, such as cleaning up marshes.  More damage occurs when going on the marshes than leaving it up to nature therefore ITOPF guides governments if/when it is advisable to try to assist.  Chemical clean-ups can be especially damaging and one must recall that Crude Oil itself consists of biodegradable vegetable base and apart from its unpleasant appearance is comparatively harmless.

Industry is constantly requesting more Research and Development which ITOPF is involved.  The “Null Hypothesis” is used by scientists.  Briefly the approach is open-minded with no preconceived idea of what the result might be, so there is no bias.

It is now possible to measure molecules in parts per trillion rather than the previous parts per million.  Diagnosis is therefore now far more sophisticated and sensitive, but with this testing, it is not known whether this is effecting or damaging to the sample which is being examined.

For example, studies are now being carried out to determine if bunker fuel is affecting fish larvae.  It is also possible to measure stress levels in the hormones of fish and birds, but no matter what the cause of the alteration in stress may be, this can be used to justify large damages claims.  However, just because it is possible to measure damage in parts per trillion, it does not mean that more damage has been done than when it was not possible to measure this minutely.

It has been observed that if results do not agree with what is preconceived, the industry is accused of lying.  If governments conduct experiments and agree with the industry they are accused of deception too.  This is the reason for ensuring that experiments must be repeated and reviewed before being published.

Karen hoped that science at school will be the last subject to be affected by politics, but this is proving not to be the case.  Schools must make science more appealing, with more hands on experiments such as playing with Bunsen Burners even if students get a few blisters at the start, combining baking soda and vinegar to cause an explosion, or touching a plasma globe and getting an electric shock. Without these there will be no one to question poor science and challenge news headlines.

As Karen says “While it is healthy to question scientific results, let’s ensure that good science does not become a victim of political agendas, business objectives or even personally held bias and let’s do our bit to propagate good science”.

IMIF would like to thank Karen Purnell for taking time to give this presentation and Renaud Barbier-Emery from Ince & Co LLP for hosting this luncheon.