Written by: Evelyn Y. Chang
Edited by: Jessica Vosgerchian
In March of 2012, British Petroleum sought court enforcement of a subpoena for “any conversation or discussion” made by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (“WHOI”) regarding their studies on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. WHOI and its researchers were neither parties nor witnesses in the ongoing lawsuits related to the Deepwater spill, but they had contributed data to a government report on the spill, and results of their studies had been cited in the lawsuits. WHOI argued that they had already provided all the information needed to test the study’s veracity, but BP asserted that additional materials, including records of internal deliberations made by the researchers before they published the studies, were necessary for them to challenge the studies’ results. The court applied a balancing test that weighed BP’s need for the requested information against the burden placed on WHOI, and required the WHOI researchers disclose internal pre-publication materials relating to the studies cited in the government report.[i]
Last fall, Science published an editorial by several WHOI researchers whose materials were among those requested by the subpoena. The WHOI researchers argued that BP’s subpoena request amounted to an attack on the independence of scientific inquiry, and advocated for federal legislation to protect researchers from legal harassment when their results contradict entrenched interests. While legislation is the most straightforward method by which the government can protect scientific independence, common law already provides some protection for researchers who may find themselves in a situation similar to that of WHOI.
Discovery of evidence from third parties is nothing new, and many courts hold that the right to obtain evidence from non-parties is sometimes necessary to ensure a fair trial. While the Supreme Court has not directly addressed scientific privilege, lower federal courts have applied a balancing test that weighs the requesting party’s need for the information against the burden that would be placed on the receiving party.[ii] When determining what information must be disclosed, courts have considered several factors, including the completeness of the information, confidentiality of sources, and chilling effects on research.[iii] (more…)