USDA Researchers Claim Scientific Integrity Has Been Tampered With

iStock/DragonImages
iStock/DragonImages

Nearly ten percent of USDA scientists claim that their research has been altered or tampered with by superiors “for reasons other than technical merit,” a new survey showed earlier this month. The Washington Post suggested that these alterations may have political motivations, such as when the USDA allegedly retaliated against scientist Jonathan Lundgren after he found that pesticides may harm pollinators.

“[The Scientific Integrity Policy] has done nothing about the lack of scientific integrity exhibited by my station director,” one scientist reported anonymously.

This information was revealed via a survey of more than 2,000 scientists in the Agricultural Research Service, Forest Service, Economic Research Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service with regard to the USDA’s Scientific Integrity Policy.

The policy, which was last modified in 2016, is intended to “ensure the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the Department’s engagement in scientific and technological activities,” according to the USDA.

In early 2017, the USDA’s modified policy was lauded as “top grade,” “strong,” “substantially strengthened,” and “significantly improved” by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

However, many of the surveyed scientists did not find these modifications sufficient to improve the state of affairs when it comes to their superiors tampering with research, often for political gain.

“Nothing has really changed,” one commenter said. “Because the SIP still provides managers with the ability to stop communication of anything they want. The wording has changed and sounds better, but reality has not changed.”

More than half of the 1,300 scientists who responded to the survey said that they didn’t know how to file a complaint if they felt the integrity of their work was at stake, and 20 percent said that they didn’t even know the Scientific Integrity Policy existed. Eighty-five percent said that the Scientific Integrity Policy either didn’t benefit them or offered no opinion as to its usefulness.

“You do not need to have many cases to create a strong chilling effect, and the current science climate inside USDA is quite nippy,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Washington Post.

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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.