USDA Scientific Integrity Policy Sputtering, Survey Shows

WASHINGTON, DC, April 20, 2017 – Scientists inside the U.S Department of Agriculture do not see a culture of scientific integrity taking hold from the 2013 adoption of a policy with that stated purpose, according to the results of a new survey by the USDA Office of Inspector General (IG).  The survey was undertaken after Dr. Jon Lundgren, one of USDA’s top entomologists represented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), publicly complained of political suppression of research linking potent new insecticides pushed by agribusiness with declines in wild pollinators, such as monarch butterflies.   

The IG “Survey of USDA Scientists Regarding Scientific Integrity” polled scientists from four branches of the agency: Agricultural Research Service, Forest Service, Economic Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Notably, a significant percentage (41%, totaling 900 scientists) contacted by the IG refused to fill out the survey.  Those who did fill it out had little good to say:

  • Nearly a tenth of respondents (more than 120 scientists) report their research findings have “been altered or suppressed for reasons other than technical merit.” However, not one filed a Scientific Integrity complaint.  Most (60%) confess they did not know how to file a complaint.
  • The vast majority feel the USDA Scientific Integrity Policy made no difference in their work.  Of those who see a difference more say it made matters worse rather than better.  More than one-sixth (18%) were not even aware there was a policy; and 
  • A majority of respondents (51%) do not think that USDA strongly promotes scientific integrity or refused to venture an opinion.

“You do not need to have many cases to create a strong chilling effect, and the current science climate inside USDA is quite nippy,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that USDA’s policy actually contains a gag order forbidding scientists “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.” “USDA scientists correctly perceive that their agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy is incredibly weak and its implementation is even weaker.”

One noteworthy result was that nearly three-quarters (74%) of the responding scientists say agency management flags certain research areas as “sensitive/controversial,” with climate change, pollinator health, and anti-microbial resistance as the leading hot button topics.  As one scientist commented “subtle tampering is common: with interpretations on politically sensitive topics, whether and how we address a certain research question, how we interpret our findings for the public are all interfered with on occasion.”

“It should raise red flags that scientists working in fields such as entomology, plant pathology and genetics are the ones reporting political interference,” added Ruch, pointing out that prospects for improvement may be even dimmer in the Trump administration. “There is concern that Trump appointees who embrace ‘alternative facts’ may lack any regard for protecting the integrity of scientific data and conclusions, especially on issues sensitive to corporate interests.”

Read USDA scientists’ comments

See IG survey results

Revisit the Lundgren case

Examine weaknesses in USDA Scientific Integrity Policy

Look how the USDA Scientific Integrity process works in practice

View uncertain fate of scientific integrity under Trump