The articlE “Woods Hole to sign on with energy firms” described efforts by my employer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to seek energy industry sponsors as a means to diversify its revenue stream amid ongoing declines in federal funding. Unfortunately, the story did not capture the realities of relationships between academia and industry. The article came across as if Woods Hole were selling out, but it is more about buying in.
I study petroleum — its chemical composition, how and where it is made and processed, and how it behaves when spilled in the environment. I conduct research with the petroleum industry on how to recover and process oil and, more often, with federal officials about oil spills.
I am neither the first nor last scientist who has balanced a career with industry contracts and federal funding.
These relationships have been fruitful in both directions. I have spent the past four years studying the Deepwater Horizon crisis. Some of my best published papers on this spill resulted from questions, knowledge, and samples from the energy industry. In turn, oil companies are interested in a patent-pending method we created for “fingerprinting” oil and learning how it is compartmentalized in different reservoirs.
Throughout these interactions, I have never felt that my scientific credibility was at risk.
It has always been the job of individual scientists to employ scientific methods and principles and not be influenced by their sources of funding, whether they are the government, advocacy groups, industry, or even their parents.
What’s best, and purest, about scientists is that they strive to be unbiased.
The writer is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.