Washington, DC — One of the Interior Department’s first Scientific Integrity Officers hired to apply new rules to prevent political manipulation of science was removed from his position earlier this year after he questioned the political spin in press summaries of scientific studies on the effects of dam removal. How his case is handled will be a litmus test of whether new agency scientific integrity rules are real reforms or mere window dressing, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In 2011, Dr. Paul Houser, a hydro-meteorologist, took leave from his university position to become a Science Advisor to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and to serve as the Bureau’s Scientific Integrity Officer. That September, he was asked to look over a draft press release summarizing environmental analyses on expected effects of removing for dams from Klamath River. Dr. Houser noticed the release described only the positive aspects, omitting a number of major contingencies and possible negative effects. He elevated his concerns ultimately to the Interior Secretary’s Press Secretary, Adam Fetcher.
Although Reclamation’s technical staff seconded Dr. Houser’s objections and the release was ultimately changed, two weeks later he was put on probationary status. In February 2012, his position was abolished with the non-explanation that he was “not a good fit.” Dr. Houser filed a complaint that the actions against him violated the core tenets of the Interior Scientific Integrity Policy that he was formerly administering.
For several weeks, his complaint sat untouched. Ultimately, Interior engaged a consultant firm that is doing a paper review and will write a report, scheduled for completion at the end of this month. That report “will then be provided to Dr. Suzette Kimball, DOI Scientific Integrity Officer for her review and determination of next steps,” according to the contracting officer.
“If Interior’s own Scientific Integrity Officers are not shielded from reprisal for doing their jobs, how in heaven’s name could one expect a staff scientist to push back against political shenanigans?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is legally representing Dr. Houser. “Dr. Houser’s case suggests that spin still carries far more clout than science at Interior.”
Today, PEER transmitted Dr. Houser’s critique of the gaps and contradictions in Interior’s Scientific Integrity Policy to both Secretary Ken Salazar and Dr. Gilmore. Among key problems he highlights are –
- Lack of independence for the Scientific Integrity Officer and confusion about whether serving the “Departmental mission” trumps all other concerns;
- Lack of transparency or consistency in handling of cases. Complaints are handled on an ad hoc basis. Moreover, he has not been contacted by the firm reviewing his case and it is unclear whether he will be allowed to see, let alone comment upon, their report; and
- Lack of whistleblower protection for both those who filed complaints as well as scientists whose work is perceived as undercutting an agency’s policy agenda.
PEER is also assisting Dr. Houser pursue a Whistleblower Protection Act case now before the Office of Special Counsel to reverse the termination of his position. His case is thought to be the first application of the federal whistleblower law to science integrity rules.
Ironically, one month after Dr. Houser left Reclamation, Interior issued “Public Communication” rules which, among other things, forbid public affairs staff from altering “the substance of scientific, scholarly and technical information.” The rules promise “Scientists, scholars, engineers and other subject matter experts will be provided the opportunity to conduct a factual review of news releases concerning their work prior to publication to the extent practicable.” These rules could have averted the Houser situation.
“Incredibly, Interior vows that it will never do precisely what it did to Dr. Houser,” Ruch added, noting that Press Secretary Fetcher was insistent that Dr. Houser create no email trail documenting technical concerns. “We are still waiting for Interior to back up the rhetoric of its rules with concrete action.”