Organisation - May 18, 2017

‘LEI meticulous despite pressure from Ministry’

Text:
Albert Sikkema

The LEI researchers who drew up a report on fish farming in the Netherlands for the Ministry of Economic Affairs acted meticulously despite pressure from the Ministry to change their conclusions. This was the conclusion of the WUR Scientific Integrity Committee upon finishing their investigation.

Claresse. Photo: Wikipedia

The LEI investigated the prospect of farming catfish in the Netherlands. What started as a simple helpdesk question from the Ministry grew to a large-scale investigation report. This memo also touches the subject of the competitive positions of the various types of fish farming.

Substitution
In the first version of the report, the researchers cite catfish farmers who indicated that on the market, the catfish compete with the Claresse – a crossbreed of two types of siluridae. However, the Claresse is in a somewhat higher price category, the researchers stated. Their conclusion is that ‘insufficient data is available to determine whether the African sharptooth catfish is being substituted by the Claresse.’

Funding
As the commissioning party, the Ministry was given the opportunity to respond to this text, knowing that they had granted an innovation subsidy to a company for the farming of tilapia. After this project, however, the tilapia farmer switched to farming Claresse. Several catfish farmers who did not receive funding sued the Ministry. They complained about unfair competition, as the Ministry had granted funding to the Claresse farmer, but not to them. An important facet of this case was the competitive relation between Claresse farming and catfish farming.

Insufficient
A lawyer of the Ministry therefore advised to change the text in the report. The original phrasing that ‘insufficient data is available’ was substituted by a text proposal stating that ‘no substitution is taking place […] based on the currently available data’. However, the project leader of the investigation rejected this change. He repeated the ‘insufficient data’ in the next version of the report.

Pressure
The Ministry subsequently repeated that they wanted the lawyer’s phrasing in the report. Upon doing this, the Ministry pressured the project leader, the latter reported to the Scientific Integrity Committee, but the Ministry denies the allegation. At any rate, the project leader changed the text. He no longer wrote that there was ‘insufficient data available’, and instead reported that the Claresse and the catfish differ in colour and texture. He did, however, describe the competitive relation between the two fish breeds as an opinion. The researcher fully endorses this new text, he told the Scientific Integrity Committee.

However, the catfish farmers who previously had sued the Ministry refuse to let the case rest. They are now suing WUR for changing its conclusions in an investigation report under pressure from the Ministry with the aim of denying the farmers any compensation from the Ministry.

Not very successful
The farming of fish in the Dutch province of Brabant, meant as an alternative for pig farmers who wanted to stop and retrain, turned out not to be very successful. The catfish farmers who are now suing WUR went bankrupt. Though this also happened to the Claresse farmer who did receive funding from the Ministry.

In hindsight, it would have been better if the LEI would have appointed an advisory committee with an external expert to ensure the independence of the investigation back in 2010, states the Scientific Integrity Committee. But because the investigation started with a helpdesk question, this was not the case.

The report of the Scientific Integrity Committee

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