USDA Urged to Shield Its Scientists From Harassment
Agency Scientific Integrity Policy Riddled with Gags, Gaps and Loopholes
Washington, DC — Scientists within the U.S. Department of Agriculture are subjected to management pressure and retaliation for research threatening agribusiness interests, according to a rulemaking petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) seeking to strengthen the USDA Scientific Integrity Policy. The petition presses USDA to adopt “best practices” from other federal agencies’ scientific integrity policies to prevent political suppression or alteration of studies and to lay out clear procedures for investigating allegations of scientific misconduct and protecting whistleblowers.
Adopted in 2013 under a directive from President Obama, the USDA Scientific Integrity Policy declares that its purpose is “to ensure the highest level of integrity in all aspects” of agency scientific endeavors. But PEER contends the policy falls far short of this goal, pointing, for example, at a vague gag order constraining any scientific work with policy implications:
“…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.”
PEER has received reports concerning USDA scientists ordered to retract studies, water down findings, remove their name from authorship and endure long indefinite delays in approving publication of papers that may be controversial. Moreover, scientists who are targeted by industry complaints find themselves subjected to disruptive investigations, disapprovals of formerly routine requests, disciplinary actions over petty matters and intimidation from supervisors focused on pleasing “stakeholders.”
“A largely invisible and toothless Scientific Integrity Policy enables corporate influence over critical USDA scientific research decisions,” stated PEER Executive Jeff Ruch, noting the USDA policy promises a website to display case-specific and other information but no such site exists. “USDA’s scientific integrity program is like a black hole, allowing no information to escape and no light to penetrate.”
To close gaps and loopholes, the PEER petition proposes that USDA adopt model provisions that already exist in other agencies’ integrity policies governing the ability of scientists to publish and discuss research, contest decisions to block release of data, file and pursue complaints of political manipulation of studies and enjoy protection from reprisal for filing a complaint or engaging in research with potential political implications. The petition urges USDA to adopt a number of specific provisions in place within federal departments such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, among others.
“There is no reason why USDA scientists should labor under safeguards far inferior to those extended to their colleagues working inside other agencies,” Ruch added. “To earn public credibility for its scientific work, USDA needs to spell out procedures by which political influences can be policed and scientists protected while allowing outside review of its handling of allegations and disagreements.”