At last month's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of science, there was an inspiring talk about how the open sharing of scientific data could provide new avenues for research. But the same session also provided a cautionary tale of all the factors that can get in the way of effective sharing of data. That talk came courtesy of Vernon Asper, a researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi. Asper normally studies natural hydrocarbon seeps on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and found himself dragged into the media spotlight amidst a swirl of competing interests as he tried to study the oil spill.
Asper said that there was a clear "truth" about the spill that everybody was interested in: how much oil was spilling into the Gulf, and at what rate. But, in the absence of any way of directly measuring it, everybody was forced into relying on indirect ways of estimating the flow. If the gulf oil spill were a situation where nobody had money riding on the final outcome, these estimates might be combined to provide a rough final number along with a sense of the uncertainty associated with that number. Unfortunately, this wasn't a case where nobody cared.