USDA Inspector General may survey agency scientists about censorship

By Philip Brasher and Stephen Davies

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2016 - The Agriculture Department's inspector general is opening a broad investigation into complaints that agency officials have silenced USDA researchers on issues such as pesticides.

Inspector General Phyllis Fong said her office has received for the first time a “significant volume” of complaints, “which is why we're taking it seriously.” 

The complaints include allegations that Jonathan Lundgren, a research entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service, was punished for comments he made about his work on neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been linked to the decline in bee populations. 

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The IG's concerns also stem from allegations of animal abuse at the Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska. 

Fong's office is considering the possibility of surveying USDA scientists to determine whether there is a systemic problem in the department. 

In response to questions from Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, about Lundgren's and other complaints, Fong said, “This is an issue that's very troubling. We currently take it very seriously.  We have a lot of work now at U.S. MARC,” the Nebraska facility.

The investigation likely wouldn't be completed before President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack leave office. Fong said audits normally take six months to a year to complete and that her office is still figuring out how this one would be conducted.

In April, environmental and food safety groups asked the IG to investigate the pesticide/neonic censorship allegations, following a report from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which advocates for government scientists.

PEER has been raising the issue for nearly a year. In a petition that asked USDA to strengthen its scientific integrity policy, PEER said, “USDA scientists working on topics with direct relevance to industry interests are under constant pressure not to do anything to upset these important ‘stakeholders.' ”

“In a growing number of cases, USDA managers are interfering, intimidating, harassing, and in some cases punishing civil service scientists for doing work that has inconvenient implications for industry and could have direct policy/regulatory ramifications,” the petition said.

 

But USDA Chief Scientist Catherine Wotecki told PEER in June that the department would not 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,” PEER said.

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In a subsequent lawsuit challenging that response and seeing a public rewrite of the poliy, PEER called Wotecki's assertion “erroneous.” USDA, after receiving two 60-day extensions to answer the complaint, must file its response by April 5.

The scientific integrity policy contains what PEER called “a vague gag order.” It says “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.”

The translation, said Ruch: “We will tolerate scientific findings as long as they're irrelevant.”

Meanwhile, a whistleblower complaint filed by Lundgren is proceeding before the Merit Systems Protection Board. Mediation in the case recently ended when USDA pulled out, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said.

Ruch said discovery is now underway, and a trial could be held this spring.

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