Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Agriculture should stop censoring scientific findings for political reasons and significantly strengthen its Scientific Integrity Policy, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The suit targets official restraints on USDA scientists publishing or speaking about their findings in peer-reviewed journals, before professional societies and in other unofficial settings.
This March, PEER filed a formal rulemaking petition pressing USDA to end censorship policies and to bolster its extremely weak Scientific Integrity Policy adopted in 2013. The petition asked USDA to adopt “best practices” from other federal agencies’ integrity policies and to end politically driven suppression or alteration of studies. In a letter dated June 11, 2015, USDA Chief Scientist Catherine Wotecki wrote that the agency refused to consider the substance of the petition because scientific integrity only affected its “internal personnel rules and practices” and was therefore exempt from the public notice and comment process normally required of agency rules.
“Censorship of public agency science does not affect only scientists – it concerns the public at large as well as every entity relying upon the integrity of USDA science,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is also representing USDA scientists alleging official harassment flowing from scientific work which upsets agribusiness “stakeholders.” “USDA cannot piously pledge its devotion to scientific integrity while at the same time rebuffing any attempts to safeguard it.”
PEER cites instances of USDA scientists ordered to retract studies, water down findings, remove their name from authorship and endure long indefinite delays in approving publication of papers that may be controversial. Media requests for interviews with scientists are either indefinitely delayed or denied. Of particular concern is a gag order barring release of any scientific work reflecting on any federal policy:
“…scientists should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently.”
“USDA may not screen submissions to peer-reviewed journals for their political implications,” added Ruch, pointing out that USDA scientists use their agency affiliation for purposes of identification and the journal articles are not “owned” by the agency. “USDA is not entitled to its own set of facts to alter or suppress at will.”
Ironically last week, USDA announced it is now seeking public comment on how to increase public access to the results of federally-funded agricultural research. PEER is suggesting that the best way to increase public access to USDA-funded research is to stop vetting it for “sensitive” content and to allow its scientists to openly discuss findings without prior permission.
“USDA is raising a bumper crop of hypocrisy this year,” Ruch concluded, noting that Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, a USDA entomologist based in South Dakota, is slated to receive a national award next week in Washington DC for “civic courage” in recognition of his resistance of agency censorship. “Dr. Lundgren’s experience raises doubts about whether groundbreaking science can still be conducted inside USDA free from interference.”