Washington, DC — The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has set aside plans to outsource all its fisheries science for the Klamath Basin and vowed to keep the work in-house, according to a document posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The agency also issued an apology to the scientists, promised a new cooperative approach and took other steps that largely resolve a scientific misconduct complaint the biologists filed against Reclamation earlier this year.
The dispute was sparked by a letter last fall from Jason Phillips, Reclamation’s Klamath Basin Area Manager, declaring his intent to reassign all seven scientists working in the Fisheries Resources Branch because “Many perceive [your] efforts as inherently biased… carrying out studies to contradict the science of other agencies.” This threat to remove the biologists due to the content of their scientific work drew both a union grievance and a formal complaint of intimidation and scientific suppression in violation of agency scientific integrity rules filed on the biologists’ behalf by PEER.
In a decision-memo dated April 12, 2013, Reclamation Regional Director David Murillo responded to the formal grievance from Local 951of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union representing all but one of the biologists, by directing that Reclamation:
- Would “rescind” the Phillips letter and “apologize to the Fisheries Resource Branch” for Phillips’s inartful language, stressing “our intent was not to question the [scientists’] integrity”;
- Keep the Fisheries Branch “intact” and working on “Klamath Falls issues”; and
- Establish a joint union-management team to evaluate the future of the Fisheries Resource Branch “in a collaborative and transparent environment.”
“This is a welcome development that walks Reclamation back from the brink of a war with its own scientists,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “This action illustrates that a simple apology is one of the most effective but least utilized options employed in public service.”
These steps also granted the relief sought in the PEER scientific misconduct complaint with the exception of disciplinary action against Phillips. Accordingly, that complaint was also formally withdrawn today.
“Being taken to the woodshed for the needless embarrassment and disruption he caused is sufficient punishment for Mr. Phillips,” Ruch added. “The backlash caused by his ham-handedness may actually result in a truly collaborative process for addressing these complex scientific issues.”
Going forward, Reclamation says it will look to increase its scientific efficiency in the Klamath Basin area Office. On that count, PEER has asked the Interior Office of Inspector General (IG) to review the exorbitant contracts Reclamation has issued to displace in-house scientists, featuring overhead rates as high as 50%. An IG audit would determine from a business standpoint how much Reclamation would save by shifting work from highly-paid contractors back to its own staff scientists.