WASHINGTON, July 15, 2016 – Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility failed to demonstrate legal standing in a challenge USDA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, a federal judge ruled today.
The policy, adopted in 2013, establishes guidelines on how USDA scientists should discuss their scientific findings. USDA said it did not want to stop scientists from speaking about their research – indeed, the policy says they are “encouraged” to talk with the media – but that they should coordinate with their supervisors and public affairs staff.
At issue in the lawsuit is a section in the policy that 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. Communications on such matters should remain within the bounds of their scientific findings.”
PEER, which represents scientists working for all levels of government, initially petitioned USDA to change the policy to eliminate that requirement. USDA denied the petition, leading to the lawsuit, which was filed last November.
To demonstrate standing, PEER cited the experience of Agricultural Research Service entomologist Jonathan Lundgren, who was suspended for 14 days following publication of a paper on the effects of the neonicotinoid pesticide clothianidin on monarch butterflies. PEER noted that USDA had also claimed that Lundgren was punished for a travel paperwork irregularity.
Lundgren resigned from USDA in March after a complaint he filed with USDA was rejected by a Scientific Integrity Review panel.
“PEER must show . . . that at least one of its members is a USDA employee, subject to the policy, who is suffering or will in the near future suffer some injury as a result of the policy,” U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper said in his 10-page ruling.
PEER argued that Lundgren intends to apply for grants from USDA and would be subject to the policy, but Cooper said he “is not currently a recipient of any USDA grant, and his assertion that he will receive a USDA grant in the near future is only speculative.
“Second, even if Dr. Lundgren were to receive a USDA grant, the court finds that he would not necessarily or even likely be bound” by the policy.
Asked to respond to the ruling, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said, "The court granted us leave to amend the complaint to find a scientist with similar concerns who has not resigned in disgust. That will be our first course of action."
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