After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, residents of the five Gulf states, many of whom rely on a healthy marine environment for their livelihoods, had legitimate concerns about the oil’s potential impact. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, a major funder of oil spill science studies, worked with Sea Grant to create a systematic approach to answering area stakeholders’ questions. As the science communicator with the Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Oil Spill Outreach Team, I help our oil spill science specialists translate published scientific research into everyday language so anyone can understand it.
Why do our specialists only share published scientific results? Researchers seeking publication must go through an arduous review process. Experts in the field weigh in on their work, making sure that the scientific method is followed correctly and the results add up. Only the soundest science is included in respected academic journals. Anyone working in this world knows that sensationalized, overblown or false scientific claims can damage the reputations of researchers and the institutions they work for, sometimes beyond repair.
In serious scientific inquiry, answers come slowly because of the number of variables in play. Say scientists looking at chemical concentrations in the Gulf find numbers that alarm them. Could oil be the culprit? Of course, but it could also be any number of other issues, from fertilizer runoff to output from coastal factories. They must slowly, carefully do their best to narrow down which factors influenced these outcomes. The process often takes years and the input of many other researchers, each working on different pieces of the puzzle.
Getting an accurate picture of the overall health of something as complex as the Gulf of Mexico requires diligence, patience and trust in the process. Good science brings answers, but usually only in the tiniest of increments. Just as often it brings more questions, making the big picture seem that much harder to grasp. The scientific method can be incredibly frustrating for those on the outside waiting for definitive results, but it is the only way to feel certain of meaningful findings.
That’s why the Sea Grant Oil Spill Science Outreach Team is so important. Our specialists meet with target audiences to find out exactly what they want to know. Then they get to work reading the peer-reviewed research on the subject. Because they are scientists themselves, they are able to cut through the jargon and deliver sound scientific answers without agenda or spin.
In just two years, the team has built a network of more than 1,600 contacts in the region. We have listened to those contacts, conducting 17 input sessions around the Gulf to find out what our stakeholders most want to learn about oil spill science. To answer those questions, we have hosted 15 science seminars and developed 12 extension publications. More of both are on the way.
Because scientists aren’t done studying the oil spill’s impact, neither are we. In an earlier post, Mississippi-Alabama oil spill science specialist Larissa Graham explains our plans not only to continue our offerings in the next three years, but to expand them. We will even be moving out of the Gulf and beyond the Deepwater Horizon, taking what we know about oil spill science to audiences around the country who want to be prepared for any potential incident in their area.
To keep abreast of our plans and products, check out our website. If you want to find out more about our work, get added to our mailing list, or ask one of our specialists a specific question, feel free to contact me via email or phone at (228) 818-8825.