The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release


Dept. of Interior Press Office Screens Ocean Science for "Grammatical Errors"

Interior Says Fears Based on “Misinterpretation of Policy” But Issue No Correction


The Department of Interior denies that it alters the substance of scientific papers and presentations in its branch responsible for offshore drilling oversight, saying public relations office review is to ensure "consistent" policy statements and "double check for any grammatical errors", according to a letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite conceding some "confusion" arising from "misinterpretation of policy," Interior has declined to publicly clarify the policy or assure scientists that PR screening of their work is only cosmetic.

The February 8, 2011 letter from Ned Farquhar, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior, came in response to a complaint filed by PEER back on November 10, 2010. The group protested a new order by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM is part of the now-defunct Minerals Management Service or MMS) Director Michael Bromwich that henceforth all scientific presentations, PowerPoint slides or technical work will be pre-approved by Headquarters Public Affairs in D.C. Scientists must also submit work that may be seen outside the agency with a form for "Approval of Official Expression by Oral Presentation."

Interior's belated explanation, via Farquhar's letter, states that -

"The public affairs office does not review the substance of scientific materials. Rather, our agency's policy is to ... allow public affairs to review presentation materials, such as speeches or slide be prepared for [any media] questions... to further promote the speaking engagement.... [T]he review ensures policy statements are consistent, and serves as a double check for any grammatical errors (or errant uses of the former agency name, 'MMS')."

"That is the screwiest explanation I have ever heard," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who had complained the BOEM screening policy runs counter to new Interior Department directives on scientific integrity and transparency. "On one hand, Interior says it does not look at substance but on the other says it is rooting out inconsistent policy statements - no wonder there is confusion."

Farquhar's five-paragraph letter also leaves a number of other unanswered questions, such as -

  • Why are all presentations covered? The policy applies even to a small conference call among scientists working in interdisciplinary groups unknown to, let alone covered by, the media;
  • Why are scarce federal funds spent on policing letterhead and logos?
  • Why must everything be sent to Headquarters, adding several days to finalization of every scrap of scientific work, no matter how obscure? Can't regional or local public affairs staff handle this non-substantive function and wouldn't local staff be better able to promote any speech to media?

"This is the agency that is supposed to prevent the next BP spill and the only thing it is double checking is grammar," Ruch added, questioning why this explanation took three months to concoct but in that time BOEM provided no clarification to its own scientists. "If Interior is sincere about promoting the free exchange of scientific information, it should be taking affirmative steps to lessen the chill still very much in the air."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.