USDA Urged to Reform Scientific Integrity Policy after Alleged Censorship

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A coalition of over 50 sustainable agriculture, environmental, bee keeping and public interest organizations have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to follow up on a March 2015 letter regarding alleged suppression of research, harassment of scientists and censorship by the agency. In March 2015, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a citizen’s petition calling on USDA to adopt new policies that would protect government scientists’ ability to evaluate and communicate freely research findings that questions the safety of agrichemicals without political interference and fear of retaliation.

A leading figure in this struggle is Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, a senior scientist with USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (ARS). Recently featured in a Washington Post article, Lundgren has served with ARS for 11 years, published nearly 100 scientific papers as well as a well-regarded book about predator insects. However, it was not until 2012, after publishing research in the Journal of Pest Science that suggested neonicotinoids, a popular class of pesticide, did not improve soybean yields and granting interviews about said research, did he come under scrutiny from his superiors.

In the following months and years, Lundgren became subject to an office misconduct investigation and a two-week suspension after improperly filing a travel request, while other scientists who committed a similar infraction faced no disciplinary action. All these actions coincided with research and interviews Lundgren took part in that conflicted with the interests of the agrichemical industry. Following the suspension, Lundgren filed an official scientific integrity complaint with the agency, which was rejected and after appeal, a five-member panel recently upheld the decision.

In October, Lundgren filed a whistleblower suit claiming he was disciplined by USDA in order to suppress his research about neonicotinoids and their potentially negative effect on pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The suit also alleges that nine other USDA scientists have been subject to similar actions and ordered to retract studies and water down findings.

While USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong has announced that the agency will be opening a broad investigation of the issue, USDA’s rejection of Lundgren’s complaint demonstrates that there may be a long road ahead. The authors of the letter requested that a thorough investigation should be made available to the public once complete and that USDA should also employ a third party to conduct a parallel investigation.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine Online 3/9/2016