Who gets the credit for the BP container cap? YOU do.

By Chris Mooney | July 20, 2010 8:37 am

This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded ScienceCheerleader.com and cofounded ScienceForCitizens.net to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.

The world may never know for certain who sparked the idea for the current BP oil containment cap.  Professor Robert Bea, from the University of California, Berkeley, however, has a strong hunch:

Six weeks ago, Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, received a late-night call from an apologetic “mystery plumber.” The caller said he had a sketch for how to solve the problem at the bottom of the Gulf. It was a design for a containment cap that would fit snugly over the top of the failed blowout preventer at the heart of the Gulf oil spill.

Professor  Bea, a former Shell executive and well-regarded researcher, thought the idea looked good and sent the sketches directly to the US Coast Guard and to a clearinghouse set up to glean ideas from outside sources for how to cap the stubborn Macondo well.

When Bea saw the design of the containment cap lowered onto the well last week, he marveled at its similarity to the sketches from the late-night caller, whose humble refusal to give his name at the time nearly brought Bea to tears.

Whether or not this unnamed plumber will or should receive credit for this is sketchy, but this much we know: more than 300,000 ideas from the public were submitted to BP. No prize money was offered, no promises of fame. When called upon to act, YOU, the public came through. Unfortunately, this natural reaction to collaborate and act upon a crisis is, more often than not, an unnatural reaction for most organizations. A host of reasons can be cited including politics, governance, legalities, public relations, etc.

It’s high time things change, no?

As painful as the past few months have been from an ecological, economic, social, and governance perspective, there are many lessons to be learned. I’d like to address one, here: some problems are too big to leave solely to the experts.

Earlier, on this blog, I argued for a more serious approach to solicit and vet solutions from the public. This led to several meetings and conversations with the White House, the National Academy of Engineering, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Expert Labs, and others, including the CEO of Innocentive, Dwayne Spradlin, who has done an incredible job of crowdsourcing potential solutions.

The entities, referenced above, and I have formed a loose network to figure out how we might help pre-wire the system before the next crisis strikes. Ideally, this process will make it easier to tap American ingenuity and facilitate the coordination, vetting, and delivery of the best ideas into the hands of  the decision makers.

Call To Action

All of this presents an opportunity for the White House to flex its muscles  and take the lead in assisting and directing players in this arena. The White House has already demonstrated both passion and success in finding ways to build collaborative, public-private partnerships.

Here are some practical suggestions:

The White House can ask the National Academy of Engineering to study and make recommendations for best practices (a playbook of sorts so we are  better prepared in the future). However, because such reports typically take a few years to complete….

The NAE can host a public forum on this topic (soon).

Consider existing assets such as Innocentive’s technological platform to solicit and process ideas from the public.

Innocentive and Expert Labs can utilize their rapid-fire mechanisms to reach active scientists and engineers.

The Sloan Foundation’s support of the work the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and Crisis Commons are doing (read on) can be expanded to support these related efforts. The Wilson Center and Crisis Commons are already at work improving upon methods to harness the collective power of volunteers who help with on-site crisis triage. Why not combine forces so these on-site “problem identifiers” can inform a distributed network of “problem solvers?”

If you have ideas, please share them here.

In closing, I’ll leave you with this, from Innocentive’s Dwayne Spradlin:

Natural and man-made disasters are, by their nature, devastating and  unpredictable. But our response to them shouldn’t be. Government must take a  lead here in assisting and directing parties to this end.  We need to act now to be at a heightened readiness the next time.  And there is always a next time.


Comments (18)

  1. Jon

    Innocentive is such a great idea for a company… First ran across it in Wired.

  2. I completely agree. Working together is the way to solve these problems and government leadership (rather than spin) can move mountains. I see that in a small way with my children. Working together with them, I find that their room gets cleaned up very quickly. On the other hand, leaving them to it on their own leads to distraction, threats, bribery, raised voices, diddling around, bigger messes, deadlines passed. It does sound familiar, doesn’t it?

  3. GM

    3. Lilian Nattel Says:
    July 20th, 2010 at 9:56 am
    I completely agree. Working together is the way to solve these problems and government leadership (rather than spin) can move mountains.

    The question is what the problems are and do we all agree that they are problems…

  4. Guy

    When it comes to big crisis we need to avoid the ‘spin’ and political maneuvering and just work on finding solutions.
    We need leadership that encourages collaborative efforts to solve future challenges. There are whole online communities that focus on solving difficult problems. Figure out ways to tap into that and we will overcome a lot of difficulties.
    Another thing is we need to get out of the work-mindset of the 90s. Work isn’t about where you are for 8-12 hours per day, it’s about what you are doing. If you are solving difficult problems then you are contributing and society should take good care of you.

  5. Eric the Leaf

    The big problems have barely been recognized, and rarely discussed. The solutions are unpalatable.

  6. Guy above says,
    “We need leadership that encourages collaborative efforts to solve future challenges.”

    This is fine as long you and the ‘leadership’ in question realize this only EVER works where freedom is paramount. Collaboration organized by the state has a 100% failure rate. And the more rigidly the state forces the collaboration the more rapidly the failure comes.

    The internet projects, such as Firefox etc, are what they are precisely because they are unfettered by some fool bureaucrat. They are an example for the free market. Firefox is an example of the free market BUT let’s be clear that I.E. is NOT an example of the opposite.
    IE dev team has strong free market incentives to beat FF but that little control from above will have them always playing catch up. Amazingly they are playing catch up to those getting no pay!

    I.E. and FF are not perfect or the only examples one might use but the point is obvious;
    the less input gov’t has the more get’s done, and the better the job is. This has ever been the case and there is not a chance in hell it will ever change.

  7. Ravi

    I agree with everything in the comments above except the Government thing. I assume that many of you meant over involvement of Government. Government involvement is vital for Law and Order, Oversight, Authority and Public interest etc. I think the bureaucracy is too big, most of it is just talk!! and less or wrong action/direction.

  8. I solved the BP oil spill long before they put the new cap in place. It was obvious, looking at all that video what needed to be done.


  9. Guy

    This is fine as long you and the ‘leadership’ in question realize this only EVER works where freedom is paramount.

    What I mean is for the leadership to remove the roadblocks that keep things from getting done. Software patents is one big hurdle that holds a lot of companies back. Software isn’t suitable for the patenting process, everyone in the industry knows this. Soon as you write a piece of code to solve a common problem, you are likely infringing on someone’s patent. Once you start making money they can come after you with a law suit. This occurs way too frequently.

  10. @Mitch above–interesting that you use Firefox as an example of successful collaboration when you argue that “collaboration organized by the state has a 100% failure rate.” Firefox only exists thanks to the Internet, and the last time I looked at the history books, both the original ARPANET and the TCP/IP protocol (the antecedents to today’s Internet) were the products of programs organized and funded by “government bureaucrats.”

  11. Dann F.

    no!! No! NO! STAY PRIVATE!!! Keep the No-Nothings OUT of the scientists’ pocketbooks !!

    The above scenario worked just because it came from an ordinary citizen who let someone else take the credit. And if it had failed, there would have been No One inside to Blame for the failure.

    They, BP guided by Government Management, did not want “Outside Help” and at first made a show of refusing it. Yet when they were pushed by the developing crisis and the anger of an irritated public, they gladly grabbed at such a win-win option (they take the credit if it worked, no blame if it didn’t).

    If you attempt put “Problem Solving” under the auspices of the Federal government the result will be to just bury more good ideas.

    Bureaucracies are self protective. The last thing they want to do is propose an idea from their department that DOES NOT WORK. The not-on-my-watch syndrome is alive and well in the halls of government and its GoCo’s. If their people or the channels of information under their control have good (but as-yet unproven) ideas, they will stifle them until they are absolutely sure… which is always to late to do real good.

    The prime example of this is the investigation of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy. It took a complete outsider (Richard Feynman) to uncover the truth.

    Not only did he discover what happened, but he discovered it was totally preventable. His information was not new, it came to Feynman in 1-on-1 chats with people at low levels INSIDE the NASA Government-Industry complex.

    These insiders had attempted in vain to put forth warnings long BEFORE the explosion. They knew the seals did not work at low temperatures. But they were IGNORED by their own management. To speak up themselves, to their own management, after the failure, would be employment suicide.

    The more technologists you put “inside” at the disposal (payroll and job security) of Federal Bureaucracies, the fewer active brains we will have free to solve the real problems.

    I speak from 20 years experience inside such a system. We actually formed small groups and quietly strove to solve real problems. We often succeeded and implemented solutions saving millions in tax dollars. But whenever we were discovered, we were always systematically shut down by an over-protective management. (Protecting their own jobs, not ours.)

    For that reason, I have a strong suspicion that the “unknown Scientist” was either a BP or Government employee who could not get their concept past their own management, and now know that they will be fired if discovered having gone around them to get the job done.

    Instead, you should actively OPPOSE such absorption of technology resources by Government. Keep it untainted and Free or it will die.

    As I often ask my detractors, “What is the last thing you ate that was produced by a Government Employee? And what is the last thing you drove that was designed or built by a Government employee?” Only people who once drove a Yugo even try to answer that question.

  12. Bruce Robinson

    In response to number 10 above. Mr Rucci: I reviewed your blog referenced above and see very little similarities to the actual containment program utilized by BP. It appears your June 24 posting indicates removal of the top flange in the first plate, obvious oil discharge in the second plate, and best of all; in the third plate, replacement of a new top flange just like new! How foolish of BP to overlook the “obvious” solution.

    Joe the plumber may have taken all the credit following Professor Robert Bea’s announcement of his late night callers idea. What Joe failed to comment, understandably at that moment, and what Professor Bea did not know but it was I that counseled Joe Caldart on his half baked plan to bring it to the point where it was plausible it could work. His and my collaboration resulted in his direction of repairing the well and my direction of a solution for sealing the well permanently. It now appears the latter may be necessary. BP’s proposal of a “static kill” is in the right direction but will not work any better than trying to plug a fire hydrant with a cork on a fishing pole. BP’s arrogance toward outside information will get them nowhere and if they want a second solution for their latest problem, they can sort through earlier submitted solutions untill they find mine


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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