BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana State University’s Edward Overton once published a research article with the tongue-tangling title, “Effectiveness of Phytoremediation and Bioremediation of n-Alknaes as a Function of the length of the Carbon Chain in Wetland Environments.”
He also holds a patent for something called a “Microstructure Chromatograph with Rectangular Column.”
But recently the professor emeritus reached another milestone: He appeared on David Letterman’s “Late Show” to talk in plain language about oil.
Overton is one of scores of scientists who have toiled for years in obscurity and now find themselves in the middle of a media frenzy, trying to explain the Gulf oil spill to the public.
“I usually spend my time analyzing samples and looking at squiggly lines, which is not very sexy,” Overton said with a chuckle. “Who would have thought Letterman would invite me, a scientist, on his show?”
Yet who would have thought that tens of millions of gallons of crude would spew into the Gulf of Mexico for months at a time?
Since the April 20 oil rig explosion and subsequent well leak, reporters have turned to academics who hold advanced degrees in fields most people can’t even comprehend to explain the situation.
They face several challenges in trying to help the nonscientific community understand the spill and its consequences.
“Most of us aren’t the most extroverted people in the world,” said Susan Ustin, a professor of environmental and resource science at University of California, Davis. “We’re not used to being in the center of attention, and most of us have a fear of putting our foot in our mouth.”
Ustin added that in academia, chatting on live TV and publicizing one’s work are often frowned upon. So when scientists are called on as experts, “it’s been kind of awkward,” she said.
“It’s a double-edge sword. I’m worried that I’m going to say something in a way, when it’s reported, it doesn’t sound very intelligent,” she said. “And I’m worried that my colleagues aren’t going to approve.”
Yet with this critical story, there’s a need to explain complex details and concepts to the public in a way the regular person will understand.
LSU’s Overton thinks he is called by the media often because he “puts it in plain English.”
15 minutes of fame
During his appearance on Letterman, Overton brought a small bottle of oil collected from the Gulf. He and the TV host briefly joked about the sticky substance before launching into a serious discussion of deepwater drilling.
Weeks later, Overton was back in his office, surrounded by overflowing bookshelves, stacks of papers and a box of granola bars. He explained that he’s motivated to talk to almost anyone who asks so he can counter some of the misinformation he’s seen in the media.
But his newfound fame has a price. He gets regular calls from an armchair mathematician who thinks he has the solution to stop the spill. The man tracked Overton down after seeing him on TV. Another guy wandered into Overton’s office one day just to talk about his frustrations with the situation.
University of Miami oceanographer Hans Graber — an expert in “surface wave dynamics, microwave remote sensing of ocean processes, air-sea interaction and boundary-layer dynamics” — thinks he knows why people have such a connection to Overton and other experts on TV: Science may be the only thing the public trusts.
“People don’t trust BP. They don’t trust the government,” he said. “So they turn to the scientists and researchers to provide maybe more of a reality check.”
Obligation to speak
Some scientists are used to dealing with the media. Ira Leifer, a University of California, Santa Barbara researcher who is on a government team measuring the amount of oil spewing from the well, has appeared in a Discovery Channel documentary on the Bermuda Triangle.
But deadline pressure on the oil spill story is another matter. Nevertheless, Leifer feels that he has an obligation to explain “what science is and what science is not.”
“I’m in a position to help,” said Leifer. “How can I not?”
Many scientists are hopeful something good will come from this oil catastrophe — that Americans gain an appreciation of the environment, of the need for research, of science itself.
“Hopefully this creates a new generation of scientists,” said Leifer.
Florida State University oceanography professor Ian MacDonald gained attention early in the oil spill story when he calculated that much more crude was spewing from the well than either BP or the government admitted.
Other researchers, media and politicians took notice — an odd position for MacDonald to be in, considering that his department had program cuts and layoffs, and ocean science overall in the U.S. has seen a decline in research funding.
“And now, it turns out that a healthy marine ecosystem is a critical component of our economy, culture and our way of life across the Gulf,” MacDonald said. “It’s sort of ironically gratifying to suddenly find, that, gee, this is actually important. There’s a feeling that maybe we will now get some support and appreciation.”