The 24-Hour Science Cycle

We live in an age of science. From the distant cosmos to the strands of our DNA, a global community of researchers are pushing the boundaries of knowledge at an increasingly rapid rate.

We also live in an age dominated by an insatiable appetite for information. The idea of a 24-hour news cycle seems downright quaint, and slow, in the age of iPhones and social media. Now there's nothing wrong with rapid feedback and digital dissemination. I have learned to appreciate a sense of a news community that sites like The Huffington Post and Facebook can provide.

But here's the problem. Science and our need for instant answers don't always go together very well. And if you want a good example, you can start with a recent announcement by the Obama administration that put the facile needs of politics over the reasoned requirements of science.

It all centers around the now capped oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the summer, the story dominated our national news coverage. At first, the media largely parroted the low-ball estimates by BP and the federal government about the amount of oil surging into the sea. But then the coverage shifted into what, in retrospect, appears to be embarrassing hyperbole. Remember those scary graphics showing oil slicks sucked by currents into the Northern Atlantic and the headlines blaring "Obama's Katrina"?

The truth was that the disaster in the Gulf was unprecedented. It wasn't the Exxon Valdez surface spill in a cold arctic bay. And it wasn't even the same as the Ixtoc spill 30 years earlier. That meant that earnest and well meaning scientists had models and theories, but not a lot of hard data on which to predict what the spill would mean for the environment, especially an environment as mercurial as the Gulf. When I traveled to the region in the early summer, the best I could responsibly describe the state of the scientific understanding about what the spill would mean was the phrase "we don't know."

Many of the worst fears, like thousands of miles of oil-covered beaches and decimated Florida coral reefs, thankfully didn't occur. And while communities throughout the Gulf Coast still suffer from the economic shadow cast by the disaster, the country, as a whole has moved on. This August, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), distinguished scientist Dr. Jane Lubchenco, announced that 75 percent of the oil was gone or dispersed. This allowed much of the media to move on as well. It wasn't exactly "mission accomplished", but it wasn't this administration's finest hour, either. You can understand why a White House buffeted by bad news from all directions would try to put a positive spin on any sliver of good news. But this administration had always billed itself as driven by facts and not the talking-head news cycle. And when it came to the science and the Gulf, they should have been a little more circumspect.


Sure there was a lot of good news to tout, but that doesn't mean we have all the answers -- not even close. Scientists studying the Gulf, like University of Georgia marine biologist Dr. Samantha Joye, were taken aback by the NOAA pronouncements.

"Just because the water is blue, doesn't mean everything is fine. There's still a lot of oil in this water," Dr. Joyce told us. She has just returned from a cruise aboard the "Oceanus", a research vessel out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Dr. Joye and her team used every possible instrument onboard but the news came from a machine that takes multiple core samples from the bottom of the sea, sometimes almost 7000 feet below the surface. When they retrieved the mud from the bottom, Dr. Joye was shocked at what she saw.

"I mean I've really never seen anything that looks quite it," she said. "I mean in terms of just -- you look at this and you're just like, wow. I mean I knew there was gonna be oil on the bottom, there had to be. It was impossible for there not to be. It can't just vanish like a ghost."

What she found was a layer of oil three to four inches thick in places. A sea floor coated with black gunk. Now could these be isolated pockets and much of the oil is truly gone? Perhaps. But we won't know until we do a lot more study. To NOAA's credit, the agency has publicly backpedaled a bit from their "nothing to see here" stance. Dr. Lubchenco announced that there will be funding for careful, independent scientific analysis well into the future. Hopefully the American public and the media can learn to be a little more patient for answers as well.

We have a lot of very big challenges facing this country. And to determine good policies, we must have reasoned study. I just hope it's possible to give scientists the space and time they need in an age when this morning's paper already seems like old news.

Dan Rather Reports airs Tuesdays on HDNet at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. Also available on iTunes.