Washington, DC — Under its policy purporting to protect scientific integrity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is entitled to do just the opposite, according to confidential findings by an internal agency panel released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The panel rejected a complaint by one of its top entomologists that USDA purged controversial findings, blocked publication of research papers with policy implications, and forbade scientists from being interviewed by reporters.
These conclusions come from a report by a five-member “Scientific Integrity Review Panel” convened to review the dismissal of a complaint filed by Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, a Senior Research Entomologist and Lab Supervisor for the USDA Agriculture Research Service based in South Dakota who has published research about adverse effects on monarch butterflies from widely-used neonicotinoid insecticides (or “neonics”). The panel agreed that Dr. Lundgren’s complaint should not be pursued because –
- The panel was told that charges of “reprisal” and retaliatory investigations were outside the scope of its review;
- The panel found that USDA is entitled to prohibit scientists from speaking with reporters or even answering questions at conferences about the significance or ramifications of published studies; and
- USDA’s Scientific Integrity Policy explicitly authorizes it to block publication of research containing “statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy.”
“This review confirms that what occurs inside USDA does not resemble what anyone else would consider ‘scientific integrity,’” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER which is suing USDA for its refusal to even consider a rulemaking petition seeking to strengthen the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy. “Inside USDA, politics determines what scientific work will see the light of day.”
On February 12th, USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong announced that her office had opened an investigation into a “significant volume” of complaints by agency scientists about censorship and interference with research on subjects that USDA upper management deemed sensitive.
The review panel report on the Lundgren complaint arises out of the first appeal of any USDA scientific integrity complaint. Dr. Lundgren filed his formal scientific integrity complaint in September of 2014. One month later, it was rejected as not even meriting an investigation. Dr. Lundgren immediately appealed but since USDA had never received an appeal on a scientific integrity complaint decision, the agency took an entire year to determine how to handle it. Yet under the guidelines finally developed –
- The panel does not investigate the complaint but instead simply reviews materials provided by agency management. In this case, no panel member even attempted to speak with Dr. Lundgren or any of the witnesses he identified;
- There is no process for remedying any alleged scientific misconduct if it is ever confirmed; and
- The panel findings are confidential and USDA will not release them under the Freedom of Information Act by maintaining that even final reports are “deliberative.”
“How will public confidence in the integrity of USDA science be enhanced when all of the reviews are kept secret?” asked Ruch, noting that a stated objective of the policy is to “ensure public confidence.” “Given how this complaint was handled, no wonder scientific integrity lapses inside USDA are never resolved and simply fester. Something now unmistakably clear is that no scientist in their right mind should report political manipulation of science inside USDA.”