Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) arguing that the agency does not adhere to the goals of its Scientific Integrity Policy because the policy “fails to clearly prohibit political suppression and interference.”
The policy was released in 2013 after President Barack Obama directed executive department heads to promote scientific integrity within each department, and PEER argues that USDA’s policy does not protect its scientists to the extent that other agencies’ policies protect theirs.
USDA’s policy fails its scientists, PEER argues, because it does not (i) include political suppression and interference in its definition of misconduct; (ii) establish procedures for handling scientific integrity complaints; (iii) protect whistleblowers; or (iv) include “any process or mechanism for preventing politically motivated suppression or for challenging it once it occurs.” PEER also argues that USDA has failed to adhere to its policy because it has not posted a website containing scientific integrity information. Further, the petition argues, the policy “actively encourages USDA to suppress scientific work for political reasons. The provision states that 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’s petition cites examples of political interference in USDA scientists’ work, including (i) directives to avoid publishing data on certain topics; (ii) orders to retract papers or remove sections of articles already accepted for publication; (iii) a demotion and reprimand for testifying before Congress; (iv) restrictions on topics for conference presentations; and (v) threats to damage the careers of scientists whose work triggers industry complaints. “Your words are changed, your papers are censored or edited or you are not allowed to submit them at all,” one scientist anonymously told Reuters.
PEER argues that USDA should adopt various provisions appearing in other agencies’ scientific integrity policies, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Departments of State and Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “There is no reason why USDA scientists should labor under safeguards far inferior to those extended to their colleagues working inside other agencies,” PEER Executive Jeff Ruch said in a press release. “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.” See Reuters, March 28, 2015.