Australia’s top science agency faces scrutiny over industry influence

Australia’s leading research agency is facing questions about possible ethical lapses after a U.S. law firm released documents suggesting some of its scientists did not disclose that they had allowed oil giant BP to review studies prior to publication in a journal or presentation at a conference.

“It’s a mystery why BP’s legal team would be reviewing independent scientific publications” by researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), says attorney Jason Clark of the Downs Law Group, which last week released the documents.

On 8 November, Clark sent CSIRO a letter asking the agency to explain color-coded spreadsheets it obtained from BP as part of a lawsuit brought against the company by workers and others claiming they were harmed by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The spreadsheets track the status of numerous scientific manuscripts and presentations, many apparently funded at least in part by BP. The forms indicate BP lawyers reviewed nine studies that listed CSIRO scientists as a lead author or as co-authors.

CSIRO is Australia’s peak research body, employing thousands of researchers across fields ranging from agriculture to robotics. It is known to many Australians for helping invent Wi-Fi.

BP’s tracking forms record company lawyers monitoring and making notes on the studies. In each case, the firm alleges BP’s role in “ghost managing” the paper or presentation was “either undisclosed or insufficiently disclosed.” The letter asks CSIRO to make public any communications its researchers had with BP about the studies and drafts of the studies, as well as any contractual obligations they had to BP.

In a response sent on 9 November, CSIRO said it was “considering the various matters raised in your letter and will respond as soon as possible.” A CSIRO spokesperson told Science the agency “stands by its research” and that “BP did not have final approval or veto rights in respect of CSIRO’s research presentations and publications relating to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.” It also rejected “the assertion that BP was ghost writing” the studies.

The manuscripts in question originated with a team led by CSIRO geoscientist Andrew Ross of the agency’s oil and gas research division, which helped track the impact of the 3.2 million barrels of oil that leaked from the Deepwater Horizon rig, which was operated by BP. The team was involved in developing a geochemical sensor, known as a “sniffer,” that could detect oil in water. The papers cover topics including the distribution of natural hydrocarbon seeps on the gulf floor, a description of the hydrocarbon monitoring tool, and hydrocarbon concentrations in various parts of the gulf. CSIRO promoted this work in a publicity video posted online .

The BP spreadsheets include information on the journals targeted for submissions. One note, for example, says the authors of a study on hydrocarbon concentrations planned to submit it to Science , but a second comment suggests getting the paper accepted by a different journal— Environmental Science & Technology —was “more likely in my opinion.” It’s not clear whether the paper was ever submitted to either journal. The law firm says it could not find the paper in either journal, although it did find that researchers later gave a talk with the same title at an annual Australian oil and gas industry conference. The firm also says that talk—and other studies—included no disclosure of BP’s review.

Ross and other CSIRO scientists named as authors of the nine papers did not respond to requests for comment. BP said it doesn’t comment on ongoing legal matters.

Companies often ask to review research they help fund, although many research institutions have strict rules against allowing funders to approve manuscripts for publication. Clark suspects the reviews were part of a BP effort to reduce its legal liability for the Deepwater Horizon spill. The spreadsheets and other company documents, he wrote, “point to BP manipulating science to promote the false premise in the scientific literature that the [spill] and BP’s response were less harmful to people and the environment than independent science provides.”

There is currently no evidence BP did more than review the studies. Clark wants to have the draft studies made public to understand the full extent of any influence.

The controversy has stirred concerns about CSIRO’s independence and transparency. “If this behavior occurred … it damages the organization very badly,” says climate scientist John Church of the University of New South Wales, a former CSIRO scientist. “Science is meant to be independent of individual stakeholders. … For some external person or group to come along and impose … their desires for telling the story in a particular way, it should not be allowed.”