Designing Science in a Crisis: The
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
P A U L T . A N A S T A S *
C Y N T H I A S O N I C H - M U L L I N *
B E C K Y F R I E D
Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, Washington, DC
In a crisis, there is little room for prolonged debate or
hesitation. Decisions can yield tremendous consequences
and time is of the essence.
The Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, like many
disasters before it, challenged the scientific community to
more than a dozen federal agencies and the private and
As teams worked together to respond to what President
Obama called “the worst environmental disaster America
has ever faced”, scientists were denied the luxury of lengthy
These two papers are just a small piece of a much larger
story about designing the best possible science during an
In a crisis, scientists face a unique set of challenges:
• Realized or potential adverse consequences
• Significant uncertainties and unknowns
• An urgent time frame for decisions and actions
Throughout the DWH spill, there was a direct threat of
oil reaching shoreline ecosystems, harming aquatic species,
were also potential indirect concerns associated with re-
worked with interagency teams to address these immediate
threats without losing sight of the secondary, yet equally
The ongoing disaster also presented extraordinary
challenges and unknowns. The combination of the spill’s
depth at sea and distance from shore was unprecedented.
The spill’s elusive flow rate and unpredictable cessation
amidst these challenges and under urgent time pressure
for three months.
EPA worked to uphold its commitment to scientific integri-
the best possible work, EPA designed a crisis science
framework around three fundamental elements.
the first spill in the Gulf of Mexico to require a response.
Searching for lessons learned from events like the Exxon
Valdez and Ixtoc spills was an important first step. Scientists
also turned to previously published analyses such as those
conducted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (3) to
learn as much as possible from the existing body of response
work within the Agency and engaged academic institutions,
especially those along the Gulf coast, to take advantage of
ongoing research and avoid duplication of effort.
the specific needs of the crisis response. There were a myriad
of scientifically interesting questions surrounding the DWH
oil spill. EPA scientists needed to prioritize only those
This is why EPA, with its partners, implemented air, water,
and sediment monitoring regimes. This is also why inter-
agency scientists conducted daily monitoring of dissolved
oxygen levels, organism (rotifer) mortality, and particle size.
To understand the impact and effectiveness of dispersant
use, EPA conducted comparative toxicity tests (4) that
informed actions and decisions. The testing for dioxin
formation described in this journal was undertaken on the
The third element was working to ensure the highest
Corresponding authors e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org (P.T.A.) or
Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010, 44, 9250–9251
92509ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY / VOL. 44, NO. 24, 201010.1021/es103700xNot subject to U.S. Copyright. Publ. 2010 Am. Chem. Soc.
Published on Web 11/12/2010