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Science Partnership Enabling Rapid Response


The 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster has been recorded as the largest marine oil spill in U.S. history. The response required unprecedented collaboration and engagement from scientists in multiple disciplines across government, academia, and industry. While it prompted rapid advancement of scientific knowledge and tools, it also exposed weaknesses in the system of information dissemination from experts to oil spill responders.  


Over the past year, our team tackled the complex, interdisciplinary challenge of enabling scientific collaboration before and during large marine oil spills by generating innovative solutions that go beyond traditional problem-solving strategies. Our goals for this project were threefold:

  1. Characterize and understand the obstacles to effective scientific collaboration during environmental crises such as large oil spills, as well as highlight successful instances of collaboration. 

  2. Design new tools, protocols, and practices—and amplify existing successful ones—that enable scientific exchange between government agency responders and non-governmental scientists from multiple relevant disciplines before and during crises. 

  3. Craft solutions that are applicable in other complex disaster response contexts beyond marine oil spills, including earthquakes, tsunamis, and public heath crises.


We applied ChangeLabs' Deep Change Model to tackle the complex interdisciplinary exchange of information among science experts during a catastrophic event such as an oil spill. This one-year project had the following three phases: 

1. Design Ethnography: The team conducted in-depth ethnographic interviews with over 100 key system stakeholders, which included academic scientists, government agency staff, elected officials, industry representatives, and stakeholders from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Through these interviews, we were able to identify key barriers to action, stakeholder motivations, and identify opportunities for interventions.

2. Synthesis and Refinement of Problem Framing: During this phase, the team distilled their key findings to guide solution generation. They kicked off this phase by facilitating a Concept Generation Workshop in September 2014 with our Core Advisory team members, during which we refined our problem framing, target outcomes, and key criteria for our project solution.

3. Idea Generation: Building from the insights we extracted from ethnography, the team generated over 100 ideas for tackling our problem statement: How might we enable greater collaboration before, during, and after large, environmental crises? They used root causes and leverage points as springboards for ideating new solutions. The list of the 10 “semi-finalist” solution ideas generated and crafted by the team and their advisors from EPA, NOAA, US Coast Guard, and key academic institutions.

4. Prototyping: The team produced prototypes for ten solution ideas that were identified by our Core Advisory Team as most impactful, feasible, and scalable. Prototyping is valuable for testing specific hypotheses about the value that a proposed solution is designed to create. Prototypes allow us to incorporate user feedback quickly, iteratively, and cheaply. It also identifies ideas that are not effectively grounded in the human needs or system realities we are attempting to resolve.

We prototyped our ten ideas through a dozen one-on-one sessions and in one 36-person workshop at the Gulf Science Conference in Houston, TX. Academics, federal government employees (NOAA, U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency), and industry representatives attended.

5. Testing and Solution Refinement: The last phase of the project was selecting and refining a single proposed solution based on the prototyping feedback, and then testing the final project solution with key system stakeholders. This phase also included implementation planning and identifying target outcomes for a pilot of the proposed solution.

Project member Lindley Mease discuss the project's problem framing with advisory members from the US EPA and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute during a SPERR workshop in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: Stanford ChangeLabs


Our final proposed solution is called the Science Action Network. The Network will be a community of academic and professional scientists that are linked to regional government planning and response bodies—such as Regional Response Teams—to coordinate and streamline scientific input for decision-making primarily during preparation for both localized and national disasters. It will enable cross-disaster preparedness and science-based decision-making through novel academic-agency partnerships, resource sharing, and user-centered delivery of relevant scientific research to disaster responders.

The Science Action Network was profiled in the magazine EOS in January 2016, and in an op-ed in the SF Chronicle. The SPERR project and solution was also cited in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation; and received coverage in Huffington Post.

The Science Action Network is being taken forward into a pilot phase, led by a team at the Center for Spills and Environmental Hazards, and the University of New Hampshire. More information on their effort is available here.

The power and value Science Action Network is illustrated in this video: