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Survey: Department of Agriculture scientists sometimes pressured to alter research findings

USA Today: WASHINGTON — Last July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sought to determine whether its scientists felt they could communicate all aspects of their research without inappropriate influence or political interference from inside or outside government.

The results of department’s inspector general’s survey, released Thursday, showed an overwhelming number of the 1,349 scientists had no problems with the integrity of their research. But 29 — 2% — indicated entities outside USDA had pressured them to alter their work and 42 — 3% — said someone within the department had sought to have them omit or significantly alter their research findings “for reasons other than technical merit.”

The survey did not seek or identify the sources of the outside pressure.

The internal survey was sent to 2,212 research-grade scientists including 1,583 from the Agricultural Research Service; 127 from the Economic Research Service; 498 from the Forest Service; and four from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Of the survey sample, 67% were in supervisory positions; 97% held Ph.D.s.

The survey effort followed a whistle-blower complaint filed by senior research entomologist Jonathan Lundgren, an 11-year veteran of the ARS, who was given a 14-day suspension in August 2015 for publishing a manuscript in the peer-reviewed journal The Science of Nature on the non-targeted effect of clothianidin on monarch butterflies.

It was the first research to link neonicotinoids to monarch survival and reproduction.

Lundgren’s suspension followed his formal complaint under the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy. The survey sought to determine, among other things, how familiar scientists were with making such complaints. Eighteen percent had never heard of it. Sixty percent didn’t know there was an established procedure for filing a scientific integrity complaint.

Of the 42 who said someone within the USDA had pressured them to omit or alter their research findings, 11 said they had also been asked to provide “inaccurate or misleading scientific information to groups such as the public, industry, media or elected or senior government officials.”

The survey also sought explanations for why those whose research was interfered with didn’t file formal complaints. Among the anonymous responses: “I cannot afford to be fired.”

 

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