LSU emails reveal the silencing of scientific thought in La.


Here’s one thing that I’ve encountered in my career as an environmental lawyer that’s only become worse in recent years. Those in power — such as Big Oil and the politicians and their bureaucrats that enable them — are terrified of academic free speech, especially in the arena of science. That’s because in business and in politics, it’s all about controlling the message and managing the flow of information. Unvarnished academic research is the opposite: It is supposed to follow the facts, even with the truth is inconvenient.

In the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, I saw this close up. Top university scientists — as well as independent researchers who worked with me and my firm — were pressured by BP lawyers, by government agencies and in some cases university officials to not collect certain samples or release research that might contradict the official line. But before BP, there was a different man-made environmental catastrophe, the epic levee failures and deadly flooding that occurred after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Just as the BP rig explosion in 2010 has been shown to be a case of gross corporate negligence, the tragedy of Katrina was that it was more of a manmade tragedy and less of a natural disaster than folks realize. It was poor planning and maintenance and shoddy work linked to the Army Corps of Engineers that caused the levees to fail.

In the weeks immediately after the flood, a top scientist at my alma mater, Louisiana State University, tried to share the truth of what had really happened. The professor, Ivor van Heerden, a top coastal expert, ultimately lost his job, and he is now suing the university. The emails in his case paint a devastating picture of academic freedom at LSU. As the Advocate reports:

Federal court filings show some LSU officials were determined to curb LSU professor Ivor van Heerden’s public criticisms of federal engineers’ design and construction of New Orleans levees that collapsed and drowned hundreds more than seven years ago.

The bottom line is that LSU officials didn’t want to alienate the federal government and risk losing the mother’s milk of modern Big Academia, which is research dollars. But the email trail revealed in the lawsuit is quite damaging. For example:

Randy Hanchey, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, received a copy of van Heerden’s assessment the next day.

Hanchey then emailed Sidney Coffee, Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s executive assistant for coastal activities and chairwoman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

“I think someone needs to call (LSU) President Jenkins and ask him to get his staff under control,” Hanchey said in his email. “This could be touchy as (Ivor) will undoubtedly spin this in terms of ‘shoot the messenger,’ academic freedom, etc.”

After 26 minutes, Coffee emailed Robert Twilley, director of the Wetland Biochemistry Institute at LSU’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Science.

“This is astounding and must be stopped!!” Coffee wrote Twilley. “This is grandstanding at its worst. This is not helpful.”

There is much more:

The next day, Twilley emailed Coffee: “Passing this along to you. I assume this is connected to the allegations about the quality of the levee system.”

Twilley then told Coffee: “I just want the governor to know that Ivor was not involved in our coastal restoration team that (helped) the (corps) develop the chief engineer’s report. So, he does not represent the wider coastal science and engineering community.”

By Jan. 5, 2006, less than five months after the deadly flooding of New Orleans, it appeared that some LSU officials were preparing to end van Heerden’s LSU career.

It goes on — please read the entire article. The bottom line is that van Heerden ultimately lost his job not for “grandstanding,” as he was accused of, but for speaking the truth, when others in power wanted to change the conversation. And I can tell you that this is not an isolated incident. Whatever the outcome of van Heerden’s lawsuit, LSU ought to be ashamed of itself. Because the bottom line is this: If we silence our academics on matters such as hurricane safety, offshore drilling or the use of toxic dispersants to get rid of spills, these tragic mistakes are certain to happen again and again.

To read the Advocate report on the LSU enails, please go to:

Here’s a 2010 report on the federal Oil Spill Commission and its unsettling calls to researchers investigating seafood safety in the Gulf:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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