Entomologist's scientific integrity complaint rejected by USDA panel

By Stephen Davies

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WASHINGTON, March 1, 2016 - The Agricultural Research Service did not violate USDA's Scientific Integrity Policy (SIP), as asserted by an entomologist who has published papers on the risks of neonicotinoids to monarch butterflies, a USDA-assembled panel has found.

A three-member Scientific Integrity Review Panel said ARS's Jonathan Lundgren “did not provide credible and verifiable evidence to support his contention that his research was impeded and that he was restrained from communicating with the media and interacting with the broader scientific community.”

The report, which USDA intended to remain confidential, was released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which represents government employees. PEER noted that the panel was directed not to consider any of Lundgren's allegations of retaliation for publishing and speaking about his research.

Lets Talk Food

Lundgren's whistleblower complaint against ARS before the Merit Systems Protection Board is proceeding.

USDA's Inspector General told a House subcommittee recently that she was opening an investigation into allegations of censorship of USDA scientists after receiving a “significant volume” of complaints.

Lundgren said ARS superiors told him that his planned presentation for a European Food Safety Authority workshop pertained to "a very sensitive research topic and that (he) was not allowed to express any opinions on the matter - just data.”

But USDA's Scientific Integrity Policy, the panel said, states that "communications (of scientific findings) should remain within the bounds of (a USDA scientist's) scientific findings."

The panel said ARS allowed Lundgren to participate in media interviews and submit manuscripts for publication after late March/early April of 2014, when Lundgren says he was told to refrain from talking to the press “and subjected to professional interference in violation of the USDA SIP.”

In addition, from March 2014 to November 2015, the panel said that Lundgren received approval to submit manuscripts on his research, and was allowed to “submit an abstract for, and attend a meeting pertaining to RNAi-based genetically modified plants.”

The panel said ARS withheld approval for two of Lundgren's manuscripts after “concerns” were expressed by his research leader and a reviewer.

In his SIP complaint, Lundgren says he was subjected to “cumulative low-level harassment” after giving interviews to the press and serving as a reviewer for a Center for Food Safety study.

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In one instance, ARS asked Lundgren to take his name off a paper on corn production that suggested that “a maximum percentage of the corn crop (rather than a mandated fixed ethanol production level) be devoted to ethanol production."

The SIP, however, says USDA scientists ”should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgements of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently," the panel said.

The panel members were Mary Coffey Alonzo of the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, Greg Pompelli of the Economic Research Service, and Carlos Rodriguez-Franco of the Forest Service. The memo transmitting the report also was signed by Doug Bannerman, Departmental Scientific Integrity Officer (DSIO) in USDA's Office of the Chief Scientist, and  William Hoffman, former acting DSIO, National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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