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.
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 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.