War on Oyster Science

Watchdog accuses Interior Department of misusing and politicizing science

Drakes Bay Oyster Company / AP
March 5, 2013

The U.S. Department of the Interior has been manipulating scientific data for political gain, according to a report by the government watchdog group Cause of Action.

Cause of Action released the report, "Keeping Entrepreneurship at Bay: How the Department of the Interior Uses Flawed Science to Foreclose the American Dream," on Monday.

The group reports that the department, and especially the National Parks Service, knowingly misrepresented its scientific findings in order to expel the Drakes Bay Oyster Company from the federal land it was leasing.

"American taxpayers are now faced with the reality that their tax dollars are being used to support and promote false information by a Department of the Interior with little regard for accountability," the report said.

Cause of Action took direct aim at the Office of the Inspector General, arguing it ignored problems in the National Park Service’s data collection methods and consequent selections in the presented data.

For example, the government used the sound of a 70 horsepower jet ski from a distance of two feet to estimate the sound of a 40 horsepower, four-stroke oyster skiff at a distance of 50 feet.

Cause of Action's report also said the government confused correlation with causation when trying to demonstrate that the Drakes Bay Oyster Company disturbed the local seal population.

The report was issued soon after a victory for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which recently won an injunction against the Department of the Interior’s decision not to renew the company’s lease for federal land, allowing it to continue to operate while the case is fully litigated.

Cause of Action says the department used faulty science and may have broken several statutes in its decision against the company.

"The government is defending a decision that is, at its core, based off of faulty data," Cause of Action Executive Director Dan Epstein said about the case on a conference call.

Corey Goodman, an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, said the impacts of the Department of the Interior’s mismanagement extend well beyond the Drakes Bay case.

"What’s disturbing is that this faulty data has already made its way into other parts of this country and other parts of the world," Goodman said.

The government’s scientific data has thwarted proposed oyster farm leases in South Carolina and Alabama. New Zealand and Australian oyster farmers are worried the data could be used against them, too, according to the report.

Goodman sent a letter to the White House asking that the Office of Science and Technology Policy open "a high-level investigation of scientific misconduct involving three federal agencies (NPS, USGS, and MMC), all linked to misconduct by NPS."

"This issue, first brought to your attention in spring 2009, has lingered too long. It is no longer a local issue in West Marin, California," Goodman wrote. "It involves three federal agencies, two Inspector Generals, and three Scientific Integrity Officers."

President Barack Obama introduced in 2009 a policy on scientific integrity that Goodman called "superb" on the conference call, noting that it separated ideology and science.

However, the Cause of Action report accuses the department of doing exactly what the president sought to stop.

"NPS prioritizes politics over scientific integrity by refusing to withdraw and correct flawed science, impacting businesses both nationally and worldwide," the report states.

The report specifically targets several agencies within the department—the National Park Service, the Marine Mammal Commission, and the United States Geological Survey—and accuses them of going "unchecked in their manipulation of scientific data" because they lack adequate oversight.

The department did not return a request for comment.

The department’s inspector general issued a report in February acquitting the department of wrongdoing in the Drakes Bay case. The inspector general examined whether employees in the department "altered, concealed, or unfavorably misrepresented data" and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Goodman also said the inspector general may not be as independent from the department’s influence as it is supposed to be.

The Cause of Action report accuses the inspector general of misleading the Senate Energy Committee during its 2009 confirmation hearing for National Parks Service Director Jonathan Jarvis by covering up allegations of scientific misconduct against Jarvis.

Epstein made several recommendations for action in the conference call. He said an inspector general should be installed at the Marine Mammal Commission, and he called for Congress to reform the data quality act and hold hearings on the issue.

"Now is the key time to do some serious investigative hearings," Epstein said.