Is the USDA trying to silence a pesticide researcher?
Public scientists are supposed to provide unbiased information, but a new whistleblower complaint charges that the U.S. Department of Agriculture may mute controversial findings. The complaint was filed Wednesday by an advocacy organization on behalf of an entomologist at the USDA who received a 14-day suspension. It alleges that officials at the USDA punished entomologist Jonathan Lundgren for talking to a journalist about one of his studies. That study suggested that milkweed is absorbing enough neonicotinoid insecticide to kill monarch caterpillars, which eat the plant.
Lundgren had filed another complaint last year alleging that the USDA was pressuring him to stop talking about controversial topics.
The backdrop here is the long debate over whether the government should tighten restrictions on neonicotinoids, which some observers fear are behind the decline in pollinator population. Neonicotinoids are probably a relatively minor problem for domestic honey bees, but they may be causing problems for wild pollinators, and that would include monarchs.
It’s always tricky to report on conflicts between employees and their bosses because the bosses generally aren’t allowed to tell their side of the story. So keep in mind that we are just getting one version of events here.
According to the complaint by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Lundgren sent his boss, Sharon Papiernik, a draft of a study suggesting that a neonicotinoid kills monarch caterpillars in the lab. That was last December. In January, she sent him a note saying that anything on pollinators needed to be “approved before they are submitted.” Then, the next day, Papiernik responded to his email about the study in a way that he interpreted as a green light. He submitted the paper for publication. In February, Lundgren spoke to a reporter about this issue for this Minnesota Public Radio piece. It was this story, according to the complaint, that keyed things off:
On February 26, Dr. Papiernik came into Dr. Lundgren’s office visibly angry. She showed him a transcript of an interview that he had conducted with Minnesota Public Radio on the research, during which he had mentioned that the paper was “submitted.” She asked whether he realized that the paper had not been approved in the ARIS [i.e. the USDA project management] system. Dr. Lundgren replied that he was under the impression that the paper had been approved based on their January correspondence. (Dr. Lundgren does not have access to the ARIS system itself; only managers or their secretaries enter papers into it.)
The USDA also maintains that Lundgren incorrectly filed paperwork to travel to give an “invited presentation about his research to a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as to a USDA stakeholder group, the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance.” The complaint dismisses this as nitpicking over a common and trivial error.
So far, the USDA hasn’t said much — from the Washington Post:
Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the Agricultural Research Service, declined to discuss the specifics of Lundgren’s case but said the agency is committed to maintaining scientific integrity.
“We take the integrity of our scientists seriously and we recognize how critical that is to maintaining widespread confidence in our research among the scientific community, policy-makers, and the general public,” Bentley said in a statement …
“As one of the world’s leading promoters of agriculture and natural resources science and research, USDA has implemented a strong scientific integrity policy to promote a culture of excellence and transparency. That includes procedures for staff to report any perceived interference with their work, seek resolution, and receive protection from recourse for doing so.”
Both neonicotinoids and monarch butterflies are at the center of big scientific and political fights. Lundgren had previously grappled with these controversial topics: He published a paper suggesting that sunflower farmers may be wasting their money when they buy neonicotinoids. But he doesn’t seem to be an agenda-driven partisan on these issues.
Up until now I haven’t seen evidence of the U.S. egregiously muzzling scientists in the way Canada has. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.