In an effort to ensure this mission is carried out, “the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a final Bulletin entitled, ‘Agency Good Guidance Practices’.” The OMB stated that the Bulletin’s main focus is “to increase the quality and transparency of agency guidance practices and the significant documents produced through them” (2).
Imagine the shock that Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, USDA Senior Research Entomologist and Lab Supervisor had when he was reprimanded for publishing a research paper aimed at protecting and fulfilling this mission.
In October 2015, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) published a news release titled, “USDA Scientist Punished for Pollinator Research”. The subtitle of the press release read, Whistleblower Complaint Highlights Official Obstruction of Pesticide Studies (3).
Dr. Jonathan Lundgren was simply doing his job when he wrote and submitted a research to the peer-review journal, The Science of Nature. The South Dakota based USDA Agriculture Research Service employee never expected scientific integrity to come under fire by his own agency.
In the news release, PEER stated, “His [Lundgren] cutting-edge research has drawn national attention and international recognition. He has worked for USDA for eleven years with great success—until recently.”
As one of the USDA’s “top entomologists” Lundgren’s paper started an internal avalanche that threatens to bury his career.
Research Paper Examines Insecticides and GMO Crops Harm to Beneficial Insects
Lundgren’s paper was “about adverse effects on monarch butterflies from widely-used neonicotinoid insecticides (or “neo nics”)”.
He examined how “industrialized agriculture practices, such as the use of genetically modified crops, harm soils and beneficial insects” (4).
Surprisingly, the agency he works for, charged with ensuring the health and welfare of American agriculture was upset over his publication.
In fact, Lundgren was reprimanded for submitting the paper without gaining the USDA approval first; approval, according to protocol, was assumed.
When he was invited to speak before a National Academy of Sciences panel to submit his research, Lundgren didn’t file travel paperwork prior to his engagement. According to Lundgren, this wasn’t out of the ordinary since many scientists wait until returning from such engagements to file travel documents.
In August 2015, these two events ultimately led to his 14-day suspension (originally 30 days, but later reduced).
Lundgren Files Whistleblower Complaint
Lundgren filed a whistleblower complaint stating that the suspension was the direct result of:
–> Publication of his manuscript “on the non-target effects of clothianidin on monarch butterflies in the scientific.”
–> An error in his “travel authorization for his invited presentation to a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as to a USDA stakeholder group [Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance].”
His “whistleblower retaliation complaint” was filed by PEER “with the Merit Systems Protection Board, the federal civil service tribunal.”
The complaint states that Lundgren lodged a “formal complaint last fall of violations of the agency’s [USDA] Scientific Integrity policies and was then suspended.
That complaint gave a detailed account of how the USDA managers attempted to “block publication of new research, bar discussion of results with the media, and disrupt his lab’s operations. The agency initially rejected his complaint as not meriting an investigation. His appeal of that decision is still pending.”
According to PEER, the USDA refused to consider their [PEER] petition for the USDA to “strengthen its Scientific Integrity policy by adopting provisions from the similar policies of sister agencies.” In the news release, PEER, pointed out that the USDA policy states that the agency doesn’t tolerate “political suppression and manipulation of science”.
The complaint Lundgren filed explains that his immediate supervisor originally suspended him for 30 days, but Plains Area Associate Director Dr. John McMurtry reduced the suspension to 14 days (5).
The complaint explains the significance of this reduction in days of suspension, “This reduction had the effect of denying Dr. Lundgren immediate access to the Merit Systems Protection Board as it fell one day short of the MSPB direct jurisdiction limits.”
The complaint states that these actions “were not justified, and the discipline was not proportionate to any perceived offense. In addition, the suspension constitutes retaliation for his protected disclosure: a formal scientific integrity complaint Dr Lundgren submitted in September 2014 that detailed numerous ways USDA managers had abused their authority and improperly interfered with Dr. Lundgren’s research and professional activities in violation of Agency regulations.”
Lundgren states he followed protocol for submitting a “draft manuscript on a study” and after receiving a request for revisions from his supervisor, he then submitted his paper. Following that protocol, unless further scrutiny by the supervisor is requested, the scientists continue with their submissions.
The scientists don’t typically receive any form final approval confirmation or that the paper has been entered into ARIS (Agricultural Research Information System). “This is presumed.” The complaint explains that ARIS access is available to “only managers or their secretaries enter papers into it.”
The second charge concerning travel paperwork is detailed in the complaint. Lundgren states, “Government scientists travel extremely frequently—often at the last minute depending on the timing of the stakeholder request—and need to fill out different documentation depending on the type of trip.”
The complaint states that “…for the sake of efficiency, USDA-ARS can and does approve travel paperwork after the fact, either during the scientist’s trip or after he/she has returned to the duty station.”
Three examples of colleagues filing of paperwork in this fashion follows:
–> “…six weeks preceding this event, another ARS employee filed travel paperwork for a meeting in Des Moines, Iowa on the day of departure…”
–> “… and two other ARS scientists completely forgot to fill out paperwork for a recent trip to St. Cloud, Minnesota. Management did not deny travel or punish the scientists in any of these cases.”
Employee Says He Was Singled Out
Lundgren’s complaint continues with citing that within his 11 years of USDA employment he’d “never heard of a single colleague suspended or otherwise disciplined for submitting contributed travel paperwork on the day of travel or even forgetting to submit paperwork entirely.”
In his September 2014 formal scientific integrity complaint filed with the Scientific Integrity Officers for ARS and USDA, Lundgren “detailed numerous serious alleged violations…concerning repeated attempts by ARS managers to impede or deter his research and resultant publications.”
Dr. Jonathan Lundgren claims that the USDA violated its own department polices and names managers who abused their authority with his severe reprimand.
All of this, he states, is in retaliation for his published scientific paper examining the harmful effects of insecticides and GMO crops to beneficial insects.
His complaint filed under the Whistleblower Protection Act will be followed by “sworn depositions and other discovery leading up to an evidentiary hearing”. Any ruling can then be appealed “to the three-member Merits Systems Protection Board and from there to the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit”.
References & Image Credits:
(4) TSW: Monarch Butterfly Population Drop Concerns Scientists and Evironmentalists
(5) PEER: Whistleblower Complaint
(6) Indiana Public Media
(7) MPR News
(8) GMO Protest Photo