By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- USDA needs to strengthen its internal rules to better protect the department's scientists from outside political and industry pressures over their research, a group alleges in a petition to the department being filed on Thursday.
The group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, charges that USDA scientists "routinely suffer retaliation and harassment" from managers and private industry for research that conflicts with agribusinesses.
"It's one of the worst agencies in terms of direct industry influence in how scientists are handled," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, in describing USDA's protection of scientists. "There's not much of a political buffer between big agribusinesses and managers at the agency. In our work, we've found that scientists in the agency that are producing studies that are drawing industry concerns find their careers complicated."
Such allegations are a serious attack against a department that declares: "Each day, the work of USDA scientists and researchers touches the lives of all Americans -- from the farm field to the kitchen table and from the air we breathe to the energy that powers our country."
USDA employs thousands of scientists involved in a broad array of work on plant production, livestock, food safety and the environment. The department prides itself on being one of the world's premier research institutions and has a vested interest in ensuring the credibility of its scientists. Thus, such allegations challenge the department's scientific integrity.
PEER is filing a petition to force USDA to beef up its policies on scientific integrity. The petition seeks to get USDA to adopt some of the best practices for scientific integrity used by other federal agencies to protect scientists from having their work suppressed or altered.
DTN received a copy of PEER's petition prior to the group filing it with the department.
In a statement, USDA challenged PEER's allegations and stated that the department has worked to put in place both a strong scientific integrity policy and practices to protect scientists.
"USDA is one of the world's leading organizations in agriculture and natural resources science and research. We have implemented a strong scientific integrity policy to promote a culture of excellence within the department, which includes procedures for staff to report any perceived interference with their work, seek resolution, and receive protection from recourse for doing so. Claims to the contrary are incorrect. We take the integrity of our scientists very seriously. We recognize how critical that is to maintaining widespread confidence in our research among the scientific community, decision-makers, and the general public," stated an email from a USDA spokesperson.
A petition to a department is largely a glorified letter under the Administrative Procedures Act detailing reasons why a federal agency should draft new rules. If USDA doesn't respond, PEER could sue the department over the lack of response and action.
Ruch said while scientific integrity policies have been weakened at other agencies as well, this is the first time PEER has taken a federal department to task through a petition process.
Scientific integrity policies were updated after President Barack Obama, when he took office in 2009, directed department heads to create policies preventing the political manipulation of science. USDA released such a policy in 2011 and updated it in 2013.
PEER maintains "suppression and alteration of scientific work for political reasons remain common at USDA. In addition, scientists whose work carries with it policy implications which negatively reflect upon USDA corporate stakeholder interests routinely suffer retaliation and harassment."
PEER stated the group has received reports in recent months of USDA scientists who have been directed not to publish data on certain topics considered sensitive to industry. Scientists have been asked to retract papers or remove their name from the authorship. PEER's petition also makes some anonymous, uncorroborated charges without specifics regarding reprimands or pressure against USDA scientists.
USDA also lacks a policy to handle complaints about scientific integrity, PEER said, nor is there a policy to protect whistleblowers who make such complaints.
Michael Halpern, a program manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, examines policies for open access at federal agencies. Some federal agencies have aggressively embraced scientific integrity policies and made a cultural change in the way they handle scientists and their research.
Halpern said he did not have enough knowledge to assess the practices at USDA, but the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report earlier this year looking at media policies for scientists at 17 federal agencies. The group gave USDA low scores, mainly because of the vagueness of USDA's policies, inconsistencies over the role of the communications staff in editing scientific papers and the lack of a "personal views" exception that affords scientists more opportunity to talk about specific issues.
Halpern also noted the department has always been unique because of USDA's dual role and "conflicted mandate" of promoting agriculture while also regulating the industry, he said.
"That can create some unique challenges when science that serves the public interest may be inconvenient to private interests or undermine industry practices," Halpern said.
Halpern said the USDA policy updated in 2013 has good language and intentions, but "the policy itself still doesn't have teeth."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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