This is a story about why federal scientists think agency bosses want to control their interviews with news media — even when agency bosses say they don't. Case in point, Agriculture Department (USDA) scientist Jonathan Lundgren, who has been researching the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on Monarch butterflies — a subject of intense economic interest to the agricultural and chemical industries.
It's a long, complex, technical story. Here's the spoiler: Lundgren filed a whistleblower complaint and lost. In essence, it accused the USDA of suppressing his research results. A USDA scientific integrity review board found his complaint had no merit. Here's the kicker: the board's finding was supposed to be secret, but it leaked.
Here's one part environmental journalists are sure to care about: Lundgren claimed his supervisors at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) told him not to talk to news media and punished him when he did.
Lundgren's complaint accuses the ARS of several things:
- preventing him from publishing his research
- preventing him from talking about his research at meetings
- preventing him from talking to the press
Lundgren published papers and did press interviews about his work in 2013 and 2014. He says USDA "reprisal, interference and hindrance of my research" started in response after March 2014. On September 12, 2014, he filed a complaint to that effect under the agency's scientific integrity policy. His initial complaint was rejected and he appealed. The ARS on August 3, 2015, suspended Lundgren for two weeks for failing to get approval for a talk to the National Academy of Sciences and failing to get approval for publication of a paper in a peer-reviewed journal (it was published). These events happened after he had filed his original complaint. Lundgren appealed, saying these charges were misunderstandings. But on January 20, 2016, a USDA appeals panel rejected that appeal, ruling that his complaints were "unsubstantiated."
Lundgren was represented legally during these proceedings by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a whistleblower support group. PEER said the appeals panel "found that USDA is entitled to prohibit scientists from speaking with reporters or even answering questions at conferences about the significance or ramifications of published studies."
When Mother Jones writer Tom Philpott reported on the matter December 4, 2015, he tried to contact Lundgren for comment. He put this paragraph late in the story: "Meanwhile, the USDA declined my request to interview Lundgren on RNAi pesticides in the context of the recent regulatory decisions regarding Monsanto's corn. 'I'm sorry, but Dr. Lundgren is not available for media opportunities at this time,' an ARS spokeswoman told me, after stringing me along for three days."
- "USDA Rejects Whistleblower's Appeal," Minnesota Public Radio, February 29, 2016, by Dan Gunderson.
- "Suspended USDA Researcher Alleges Agency Tried To Block His Research into Harmful Effects of Pesticides on Bees, Butterflies," Washington Post, October 28, 2015, by Steve Volk.
- "This Scientist Uncovered Problems with Pesticides. Then the Government Started to Make His Life Miserable." Mother Jones, December 4, 2015, by Tom Philpott.
- "Is the USDA Silencing Scientists?" The Atlantic, November 3, 2015, by Brandon Keim.
- "USDA Whistleblower Claims Censorship of Pesticide Research," Harvest Public Media, October 27, 2015, by Carey Gillam.
- "USDA Justifies Scientific Suppression As Its Policy," Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), release of February 29, 2016.