GULF SPILL:

Path-breaking scientists played inside-out game in government response

Jane Lubchenco and Marcia McNutt have reached the limits of science.

As the oil surged up, week after week, from the Gulf of Mexico's renegade well two years ago, McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found themselves far removed from the stately pace of their past academic careers.

It was the middle of May. The public was restive. The government seemed out of touch. Scientists surveying the Gulf's waters spoke of rivers of oil in the deep. Estimates of the spill's size seemed laggardly inadequate. What was the truth? As two of the government's highest-ranked scientists -- and the first women to lead their agencies -- Lubchenco and McNutt grappled with what science could, and couldn't, do.

It was often a lose-lose scenario, said McNutt, who led the technical group that nailed down the spill's size. There was no way to rapidly connect the ad hoc teams of responders to existing expertise. If the agencies waited while reviewers judged their science, they'd be crucified for delay; if they acted based on science that hadn't been peer-reviewed, the criticism from university scientists would be endless.

"We rightfully got a lot of grief from the academic community," McNutt said during a recent interview. "But we had no option to get it peer-reviewed! If there was an action to get it quickly turned around and reviewed, we would've loved to have taken it."

The limits of peer review are just one problem the two scientists encountered during their always-on response to the oil spill. There was a lack of strategic scientific planning; each decision came in the moment, one crisis after another. And little historical data existed on the Gulf of Mexico. The oil could be changing the ecosystem, but how?

The demand for information was unslakable, Lubchenco added in a separate interview.

"We couldn't begin to satisfy the immense appetite out there for more in-depth scientific content," she said. "That was a frustration for everybody and it got us crosswise because people would criticize what we were doing without knowing what we were doing."

Like their better-known peer, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, McNutt and Lubchenco came to the federal government with decades of experience as academic scientists. When they spoke to researchers, they had a credibility earned through years working their way up, in innovative ways, through a male-dominated world. Without that background, scientists say, the government's spill response could have gone much worse.

"I don't think this country, or even the world, understands the effort that was taken upon by Jane or Marcia McNutt or Secretary Chu," said Chris Reddy, a biochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a leading oil spill researcher.

"They were heroic," he said.

Throughout the spill, the two women played an inside-out game.

Lubchenco was one of the government's most public faces. She walked Florida, and the world, through the vagaries of the Loop Current. She closed swaths of the ocean to fishing. She confirmed -- too slowly for the public's liking -- the existence of deepwater oil. And she led the assessment, still ongoing, of the oil's long-term damage to the Gulf.

Meanwhile, McNutt was sequestered at BP PLC headquarters in Houston. A three-day stay had migrated into a months-long sojourn. She led assessments of the amount of oil flowing into the ocean. She convened a secretive team of researchers who helped dictate the government's long-term strategy. And when the time came to seal the well, McNutt helped broker a peace between BP's engineers and outside scientists.

The response was far from perfect. There are few worse times for basic research than a crisis, said Thad Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who led the spill response.

"There's an old saying that you go to war with the forces you have," said Allen, now a senior vice president at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. "In this case, we went to war with the science we had."

Allen came to depend on McNutt and Lubchenco, among others, swapping many late-night phone calls. They wanted to make every decision with the best available science, he said. Since then, he's attached honorifics to the two women, at least to himself, riffing off the nickname of Sylvia Earle, the celebrity oceanographer: "Her Deepness."

For Allen, McNutt and Lubchenco had become "Her Earthness" and "Her Weatherness."

It starts with snails

As young scientists in the 1970s, Lubchenco and McNutt cut parallel paths through what were then the male-dominated fields of ecology and geology. And their lives, which both would take to the sea, often threatening but failing to intersect, began in the heartland.

Lubchenco grew up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. It wasn't until well into college, during a fellowship summer at the Marine Biological Lab at Woods Hole, Mass., that the ocean grabbed her. Or, rather, a little clam grabbed her, she said.

"It had a structure whose function was completely unknown," she said. "That was suggested to me as a research project: Figure out what this thing does." She was hooked, and would soon be pulled into marine ecology. "It was a turning point for me," she said.

As a Harvard University student, she was drawn into cutting-edge science: the use of rocky seashores, and their immobile marine life, to not just observe the natural world, but to experiment on it. The pools dominated Lubchenco's early research life and remain important to her; in her NOAA office, she proudly displays a large, stencil-dyed quilt depicting an intertidal system, mollusks abundant.

"Rocky seashores turned out to be a phenomenal model system to manipulate things," Lubchenco said. "You can take predators away. You can cage things. You can transplant things. Instead of ... inferring causation, you could test that idea."

At Harvard, after stints in Washington and California, she made her name traveling up and down the rocky coast, from Nahant to Downeast Maine, studying the common periwinkle snail. Through observation and then lab experiments, she found that the snail played a keystone role in controlling the abundance and diversity of seaweed.

"That relationship was a novel insight, even though when you explain things in hindsight, it seems like no big deal," she said. "But at the time it was surprising."

Beyond the periwinkle, Lubchenco clarified an ecological mystery: When some scientists removed an herbivore, they saw an increase in diversity -- or the exact opposite. Lubchenco's analysis, which tied a bell curve of plant diversity to grazer abundance, explained both results. Even in her earliest work, she searched for global implications.

"Some people, during their careers, evolve," she said. "One set of questions leads to another and another. In my case, the questions lead from small-scale to larger-scale."

But before those large-scale questions, Lubchenco and her husband Bruce Menge, also a noted marine ecologist, decided to leave New England. Menge never quite liked the Boston area, and the couple faced a crossroads. Both wanted to practice science but also spend time with their future kids. So the couple pitched an idea: Share a tenure-track position.

"Most of our friends who were scientists, the guy took the job and the woman stayed home with the kids," Lubchenco said. "And that was pretty much the way it was. But this was a much better fit for our philosophy and our loves."

The couple sold Oregon State University on the idea, and they have been tied to the school ever since.

'Planet's stovepipe'

McNutt, meanwhile, is a native of Minnesota. An excellent student but reluctant writer, she seized on the geosciences as a chance to work outside, not in the lab. She studied at Colorado College, arriving in the state as Lubchenco left it, and majored in physics; astronomy could get her outside, she thought.

Just then, though, the first papers on plate tectonics began appearing. McNutt saw an opportunity. "That was monumental," she said, "because it meant that there was a whole paradigm shift happening in the geosciences, which would allow me, by entering that field, to get in on the ground floor of the scientific revolution."

Geology remains a ruggedly observational science, and McNutt's graduate work, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, took her far from the lab. Nearly all the plate boundaries seemed to be under the ocean, and so, naturally, she had to go to sea. Everyone was young. The chief scientists on her research cruises were fellow students.

"There were only a handful of papers published that were even relevant," McNutt said.

Many older geologists wouldn't adapt. They retired. The seas seemed open.

A few years after Lubchenco left Cambridge, McNutt arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after three years working on earthquake prediction for USGS. But while Lubchenco stayed close to shore, McNutt's work took her increasingly abroad and to sea. Deep in the interior of a tectonic plate sprouted the volcanoes of French Polynesia. How could that be?

Pounding the ocean floor with seismic imaging, McNutt and her team found that hot currents of magma had been coming up in the same region for more than 100 million years. Remnants of older volcanoes created by these currents had eroded, subsided and drifted toward Japan. This was more than a hot spot; it was on a wholly different scale, like a cluster of hot spots. It came to be known as the Superswell.

"It was literally the planet's stovepipe," McNutt said.

McNutt was a star at MIT. She had a named chair, and directed a program on applied ocean science. But as she rose in prominence, she was increasingly asked to serve on evaluation committees, panels and boards, slowing her personal work.

"What people valued most from me was my opinion of everyone else's research," McNutt said, "more than they really valued my own research."

Rather than seeing her time fall to a thousand cuts, in 1997, McNutt took an offer to lead the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). She had tired of academic work. She wanted to address society's problems. She was looking up from the rock strata and into the life above them.

The institute's task was simple. It was going to save the ocean.

Responding to change

Lubchenco remembers when she saw the sea change.

It was the 1990s. Her career, which would include leadership of the American Association for Advancement of Science and the Ecological Society of America, was on the rise. She had returned to the Discovery Bay Marine Lab in Jamaica, an institute alighted near the island's fringing northern reef, 20 years after a previous stay.

She dived into the Caribbean's warm summer waters. It was a shocking sight.

"That system had been completely changed," Lubchenco said, "from an incredibly beautiful, diverse, magnificent coral reef -- very three-dimensional, spectacular coral, spectacular sponges -- into pretty much a weedy wasteland."

Not one thing brought the corals low. There was overfishing of turtles, white fish and crabs; land-use change; a rush of sedimentation from inland. Disease swept through the sea urchins -- the herbivores -- that regulated the system. A hurricane trashed the reef. And instead of bouncing back, as reefs mostly do, the corals failed.

"There were virtually no functional herbivores in the system, so seaweeds grew all over the coral and kept [it] from coming back," she said. "Most of the environmental changes I saw, in many of my systems, were a combination of factors."

Such changes, the human thumbprint, were everywhere. Carbon dioxide levels crept upward. Fisheries were depleted. Working with three colleagues, Lubchenco penned an influential paper in Science charting human domination of the world. It could be called the founding document of the Anthropocene, had the term yet been invented.

Lubchenco sensed a leadership vacuum. She remained active in coastal studies, including upwelling in the Pacific Northwest, but also founded groups translating science to the public. Most influential, but less known, is the Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University, which trains scientists to move in the broader world. And, fatefully, it kept Lubchenco in touch with a new generation of researchers.

McNutt, meanwhile, did not need to create any groups. She had a whole institute to lead. She had a mind to turn MBARI toward more applied work -- topics like ocean acidification -- but doing so meant healing some old wounds.

"My first couple years there were just spent working out a healthy partnership between the scientists and the engineers," she said, "so the engineers felt that they were on a peer relationship with the scientists."

MBARI's researchers developed innovative tools for ocean monitoring: sensors that could sit on buoys and monitor pollutants like nitrates, or, more recently, the changing RNA genes of nearby microbes, allowing detection of red tides in real time. (It's a truism that scientific breakthroughs stem from improved tools.) But while the institute thrived, McNutt's research withered. She was disconnected from geology, from the ocean floor.

"I didn't know just how much I'd miss it," she said.

'Unreal life'

The Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010. Eleven men died.

Lubchenco and McNutt had joined the Obama administration through a traditional dance: names suggested by the National Academy of Sciences, feelers sent, skepticism, inevitable acquiescence. McNutt was reluctant to leave California. "Little did I realize what a persuasive person Secretary Salazar would be," she said.

At home in the District of Columbia and known by lawmakers, Lubchenco got right to work, but McNutt's confirmation was delayed for months. Soon after she came to office, the Haiti earthquake struck. And then, in the first week of May, she joined Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on a short trip to the spill response.

"His plan was to put each of the bureau heads in each of the command centers," McNutt said. They arrived in Houston. "The secretary said, 'Well, you're the only one who knows anything about underwater technology. I think I'm going to leave you here.'"

McNutt would not leave Houston for four months. She rarely saw sunlight.

"You'd get [to BP headquarters] before dawn and you would leave after dark," she said. "And you'd have these quick meals at the cafeteria at BP. And it was just this unreal life of looking at the world undersea on the monitors, and looking at engineering data and scientific models. ... I was calling on everyone I knew in the academic community."

As the well's recalcitrance became clear, McNutt's responsibilities began to pile up. Salazar returned to Houston, took McNutt out to dinner and asked her to lead a group that could rapidly calculate the amount of hydrocarbons escaping the well. The unprecedented nature of the spill had caught the government off guard in many ways, including how best to calculate deepwater flow. Surface estimates weren't enough.

McNutt's expertise was helpful, but being in Houston was just as important, she said.

"We had to get the data from BP," she said. "If someone had been sitting here in Interior, it wouldn't have happened. It took personal relationships in order to work the issues with proprietary data."

McNutt earned praise for her willingness to hazard an informed guess about the well's flow, which eventually turned out to be about 60,000 barrels a day (Greenwire, June 16, 2010). She then slipped from the spotlight, but her work was far from done.

"Marcia had to deal with a lot of sensitive discussions," said Tom Hunter, the former director of Sandia National Laboratories, who led a team of government scientists advising BP in Houston. "She basically had to run the agency while she was there. She had to run it from her laptop computer from the third floor of the BP Houston building."

One of those discussions involved the government's strategic response to the spill. Gary Machlis, the science adviser to the National Park Service, saw the government moving from tactic to tactic -- deploying boom, berms and breakwaters -- with no one stopping to consider long-term strategy. With McNutt's collaboration, he convened two scientific working groups of academics to deliver scenarios on how the spill would play out. They first met, to little notice, for five days in a sweaty room in Mobile.

"If you were covering the oil spill, chances are you never heard of us," Machlis said.

McNutt challenged the academic scientists, asking for a scenario on oil in the sediment. They closed the door, and delivered it in seven hours, Machlis said. Indeed, the group was such a success -- especially in its call to speed up restoration work -- that McNutt and Machlis sought to make it permanent, and early this year, the Interior Department established its permanent strategic sciences group.

The group will prepare a roster of scientists to advise and deploy around the country in response to a host of natural disasters. It will develop scenarios and also support an actionable peer review concept McNutt and Machlis worked out together.

"[Take] an Arctic oil spill," McNutt said. "How would it play out? How might it start? How might we prevent it from starting in the first place? ... It's one of the lessons learned that we've [applied]."

In the end, McNutt's most important role was in July, after BP had applied its capping stack to choke off the well. There was debate in Houston about whether the reservoir was leaking, and McNutt pulled on all of her geological expertise -- and employees -- to bridge the scientific gap between BP's engineers and outside scientists.

"Somebody had to understand the difference between theoretical physics and the actual applications of sealing the well," said Allen, the former incident commander. "Marcia was instrumental in working that," he added.

Center stage

There is irony that many of Lubchenco's issues in the spill stemmed from the press. Few scientists have done more to train their peers in dealing with the media, and yet under the constant glare of media coverage of the spill, the master could seem an apprentice.

"Lubchenco had a much tougher job than McNutt did, because she was facing the public," said Dave Valentine, a geochemist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "McNutt was working behind the scenes ... and Lubchenco was the public face. And that is a far more difficult position for someone trained as a scientist."

The problems were of a similar type: The public demanded information immediately, and some independent scientists were happy to speak before their work faced review. The oil plume is perhaps the best example. The data were less than certain when they first came to light, said Valentine, one of the plume's premier trackers. Lubchenco would not confirm the plume, but did not deny it; such distinctions were easily lost in the press.

"As an agency chief, if you blow that -- you cannot make statements without supporting facts," Valentine said. "She was caught in that predicament ... catching heat without disagreeing with the scientists."

NOAA's many roles in responding to the spill are too numerous to count. But perhaps the least appreciated was how quickly the agency began its natural resource damage assessment, the investigation at the heart of the government's case against BP.

"[We] started working ... on day three or four," Lubchenco said. "It was really early, thank God. Out there, they started taking samples and have been busily at work."

Even with a quick start, though, Lubchenco and her scientists were disappointed to see the paucity of data about the Gulf's shoreline systems. It's a complex place, yes, but a system of buoys monitoring the shore's physical, chemical and biological makeup would do the trick. She started a similar program on the West Coast.

"Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the biggest impact of the spill was on the young larval stages of phytoplankton," Lubchenco said. "You would like to have enough of an understanding ... to model what impact that would have. We don't have that."

With or without data, the damage assessment made leadership tricky for Lubchenco. She was torn on how to best divide the agencies resources, Valentine said. Should more researchers have gone into response or damage assessment? Should more ships have been diverted from existing missions?

"There were a lot of NOAA vessels that didn't go there," Valentine said, but often for reasons understandable, if disappointing, to independent scientists. "Do we delay king crab season in Alaska and send [ships] to the Gulf? Do we decimate people in Alaska?"

The government should have done a better job of reaching out to academics who wanted to study the spill, Lubchenco says, through rapid peer review and dedicated communication channels outside the press, where technical detail tends to dissolve. (Lubchenco and McNutt will lobby for such systems, perhaps led by the National Science Foundation, in an upcoming paper.) But given the limits they faced, the agencies turned to scientists they already knew to join their work.

It's a simple philosophy to understand, said Woods Hole's Reddy.

"You don't exchange business cards in a crisis," he said.

Only the beginning

Much beyond the oil spill has consumed McNutt and Lubchenco's time since 2010. There's ocean policy to craft, drilling seismicity to evaluate, climate satellites to launch, and always another earthquake to track. They're always learning something new.

"I never knew space weather existed, and I'm far from an expert on it," said Lubchenco, who has had to lead the agency without a chief scientist, thanks to political squabbles. "But I've learned a lot about it. And the same with Earth weather, as well."

Both women are proud of the scientific integrity guidelines passed by their agencies. (The Canadians, Lubchenco said, called NOAA's policy the "platinum standard.") McNutt has reorganized the survey's management structure on interdisciplinary lines. And the controversies of fisheries management and climate keep Lubchenco occupied.

Yet despite their wide mandate, McNutt and Lubchenco repeatedly return to the spill. Their rare scientific publications reflect on it. They've edited journal sections on it. Lubchenco took time to edit Valentine's recent paper, which provided the definitive track of the underwater plume. It feels like a legacy.

And if it is a legacy, it is one that's far from settled.

"We have just begun to scratch the surface in terms of understanding ... this particular spill, so very different in so many ways," Lubchenco said. "There's active research under way and will be for years, and years, to come."

Click here to read the transcript of E&E's interview with USGS's Marcia McNutt.

Click here to read the transcript of E&E's interview with NOAA's Jane Lubchenco.