WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2015 - A veteran scientist for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is alleging his supervisors actively impeded his work – even suspended him – for publishing research on the adverse affects of agricultural pesticides on pollinators, charges that the department flatly denies.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization that provides legal defense for whistleblowers, filed a complaint last month with the Merit Systems Protection Board, a federal civil service tribunal, on behalf of Jonathan Lundgren, a senior research entomologist and lab supervisor with ARS based in Brookings, South Dakota.
Since then, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a public interest and environmental advocacy organization, and other groups have run with Lundgren’s claims, with CFS going as far as to call for the resignation of USDA Chief Scientist Catherine Woteki, who oversees ARS. Woteki told Agri-Pulse in an exclusive interview last week that she has no intention of doing so.
PEER claims Lundgren, who has a doctorate in entomology from the University of Illinois, was suspended without pay for 14 days for filing a scientific integrity complaint against ARS in September 2014, and for publishing a manuscript this spring on the effects of clothianidin, one of a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, which some scientists have linked to a dramatic decline in honey bee populations. Lundgren’s research connected the use of clothianidin, which is used in agricultural pest management, to adverse effects in monarch butterfly populations.
John McMurtry, an associate area director for ARS, said he decided to suspend Lundgren for 14 days in August – down from an original 30 day recommendation – not because of his research, but because the scientist had a history of insubordination. He said Lundgren received two formal reprimands in the past 18 months – including a three-day suspension for unbecoming behavior – and continues to “engage in misconduct,” suggesting “a low potential for rehabilitation.”
In his suspension decision, McMurtry noted that Lundgren traveled to Washington, D.C., in early March to present his research at the National Academy of Sciences without the proper travel authorization. Lundgren took a government-owned vehicle without permission to the airport before the trip, paid his travel expenses with non-federal dollars without authorization, and did not return to work, even after he was told he would be considered AWOL. Lundgren said he wasn’t able to return to his station because of blizzard conditions.
In response to Lundgren’s claims that ARS was punishing him for publishing a manuscript on clothianidin and monarchs in The Science of Nature journal in April, McMurtry said it wasn’t about the topic of the paper, but the way Lundgren went about getting it published.
He said Lundgren had been notified that he needed to obtain approval from supervisors before submitting his manuscript, and that he failed to do so. McMurtry noted that on several occasions in the past, Lundgren had applied for and received approval to publish his work on pollinators and pesticides in other peer-reviewed scientific journals.
McMurtry also denied Lundgren’s claim that he was being targeted for submitting a prior compliant to USDA in 2014. He said there was no evidence that Lundgren’s supervisors were treating Lundgren harshly or were retaliating against him in any way, despite, McMurtry said, Lundgren having lied to his direct supervisor “on several occasions.”
Woteki couldn’t comment on Lundgren’s case specifically, but told Agri-Pulse there were “some inaccuracies and unfounded allegations being made.”
She said the Obama administration’s pollinator health initiative has “an active research program… looking at half a dozen different hypotheses related to pollinator health” including nutrition, stress, genetics, pathogens and pesticides. And over the last decade, 77 ARS scientists have published nearly 200 scientific articles on pollinator health, with more than 40 involving neonicotinoids, “so you can see it’s a group of scientists in this research,” she said.
USDA research is peer-reviewed internally and by the scientific community before department scientists publish papers, she said. That review process, coupled with USDA’s department-wide scientific integrity policy, provides “fairness” and “maintain(s) the very high credibility of the science we conduct,” Woteki continued.
Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, told Agri-Pulse Monday his group has been working on Lundgren’s behalf for two years, always “hoping that USDA would de-escalate” their actions against him. Ruch said he expects USDA will make a decision on whether to seek mediation or adjudication by an administrative law judge as soon as next week. He said a judge has already been assigned. If the case goes to litigation, it could take years to resolve, he said.
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