Scientific integrity and whistleblower retaliation problem at Fish & Wildlife Service

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, an Obama political appointee, has failed to act and refuses to provide relevant documents on findings of scientific misconduct and whistleblower retaliation by agency managers, according to a lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Some of the findings of misconduct involved political interference with endangered species research relevant to the Keystone XL pipeline permit.

Recall that it was on Ashe’s watch that the agency last year proposed, under political pressure and without a sound scientific basis, to remove endangered species protection nationwide for the gray wolf. And it is Ashe who will soon make a determination on protection for the wolverine — a case in which agency management, perhaps under political pressure from western governors, has moved to overrule a recommendation by the relevant expert biologists that the wolverine be listed as threatened by climate change impacts.

On July 8 PEER filed a federal lawsuit charging that the Fish and Wildlife Service is wrongfully withholding documents that detail why top agency officials refused to act on findings of scientific integrity reviews that confirmed serious misconduct by agency managers. “This stalemate signals that the vaunted new scientific integrity program inside FWS has broken down completely, apparently at the instigation of its Director Dan Ashe,” PEER charged in a statement. PEER said:

In spring of 2013, two separate panels found two managers of the FWS Oklahoma Ecological Services field office guilty of scientific misconduct in two separate cases. Months followed without any action by FWS leadership. Approximately one year ago on July 11, 2013, Deputy Interior Inspector General [the Fish and Wildlife Service is an agency of the Department of the Interior] Mary Kendall issued an extraordinary public rebuke in the form of a Management Advisory stating:

“The Office of Inspector General (OIG) requests that immediate action be taken to address an unreasonable and inappropriate response regarding the discipline of two Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) supervisors who engaged in scientific misconduct and apparently retaliated against three FWS employees in 2012. The failure to take timely and appropriate management action by FWS senior leadership, including Director Dan Ashe, damages the credibility and integrity of the Department of Interior (DOI) and the FWS Science Program as well as senior leadership.” …

A year later, there is no sign of the “appropriate” actions promised by FWS:

The two guilty managers were not demoted or suspended. Instead, they were kicked upstairs through prestigious details until they ultimately found other jobs. One, Luke Bell [FWS Branch Chief for Threatened and Endangered Species and Contaminants], left to work for an oil company. Dixie Porter, the senior manager, eventually secured a high-level position with the U.S. Forest Service, although it is unclear if her new employers was apprised of the scientific integrity review findings about her deliberate misconduct;

The three whistleblowing scientists who suffered a series of unpaid suspensions and other punishments have yet to get FWS to agree to redress the career damage they suffered; and

FWS took no steps to withdraw a fraudulent paper cooked up by Porter and Bell to create a phony paper trail supporting their actions. The journal moved to withdraw the paper only after being contacted by a journalist. …

The scientific integrity report about the two cases came to light only after PEER pursued an appeal of their denial under the Freedom of Information Act. Today these redacted reports can be seen only on the PEER website. The agency, however, continues to balk at turning over report exhibits and the communications from FWS leadership following those reports. After it became clear that further appeals would not secure production, PEER filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force their release.

See PEER’s earlier release on this case: SENIOR OFFICIALS SKEWED SCIENCE TO BENEFIT XL PIPELINE — Reports Find Strong-Arm Tactics to Squelch Dissent and Create Phony Paper Trail:

Managers within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) overrode their scientific experts to adopt an inaccurate map based upon a flawed model that significantly shrank the range of an endangered species, according to agency investigative reports released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The managers not only retaliated against scientists who voiced objections but rushed into publication of a bogus scientific journal article to cover their tracks.

When the Deputy Interior Department Inspector General Kendall’s Management Advisory was released last year, Environment & Energy Daily reported (by subscription):

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe ignored months of “stern warnings” on the need to discipline two supervisors who retaliated against whistle-blowers who exposed scientific misconduct, according to a management alert from the Interior Department’s inspector general. …

[Agency] biologists had identified scientific integrity violations, bringing their allegations to FWS officials. The scientific integrity officer at FWS confirmed those allegations — one of the first such findings under Interior’s new scientific integrity policy. …

But in the wake of that finding, the three biologists faced reprisal and went to the IG’s office. During a months-long investigation, IG investigators confirmed that two FWS supervisors had retaliated against the biologists by cutting their pay and changing their duties.

IG officials then engaged in “months of pointed discussions and stern warnings” with Ashe, Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle and Deputy Director Rowan Gould. …

“The actions taken against the complainants sends a strong and negative message to FWS employees who have a duty to report lack of integrity or misconduct pursuant to the DOI science policy or even to raise issues of concern at the lowest possible level,” Kendall wrote. “This case is disturbing in the sense that no one seems to have thanked the biologists for their passion for good science and for the courage it took for them to report misconduct at significant risk to their professional and personal well-being.”

We note, perhaps ironically, that in 2011 the Interior Department was the first agency to formalize a scientific integrity policy in response to White House guidelines issued in 2010 by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  See: Department of the Interior, Integrity of Scientific and Scholarly Activities; Climate Science Watch, New Interior Dept. scientific integrity policy: first agency response to White House guidelines.

On the Interior Department’s scientific integrity policy, PEER commented at the time:

The most salient feature of the rules is a prohibition against altering scientific conclusions for non-scientific reasons by public relations staff, political appointees and non-scientist managers.

The rules also lay out a process for investigating misconduct allegations against scientists and non-scientist managers. “This is the first official attempt to punish managers who skew science to advance agency agendas,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

Francesca Grifo, at that time the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program, pointed out that:

[M]any loopholes still remain. … The policy does not protect them from retribution when they report political interference in science. Conflicts of interest within the department, which have been rife, may still go unreported. … it’s troubling that the new process for evaluating allegations of wrongdoing lacks transparency. Likewise, the department is not required to publicly disclose or confirm cases of misconduct, making accountability nearly impossible.

So, as with so many other things, with scientific integrity policies “the devil is in the details,” and in the integrity with which the integrity policy is implemented. What is going on with Dan Ashe, that he, or whomever he is answering to, appears to have a problem with getting this point?

Earlier CSW posts:

Save the Wolverine (June 7, 2014)

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official has directed federal scientists to withdraw their recommendation that the last 300 wolverines in the continental United States deserve threatened species status.

Federal wolf delisting proposal found to lack scientific basis (February 12, 2014)

In the ongoing collision of science with wolf protection politics, an independent expert review panel concluded that the proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove endangered species protection nationwide for the gray wolf lacks a sound scientific basis.

Proposed ending of federal gray wolf protection: Another case of setting science aside? (June 9, 2013)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to remove the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection raises questions about the trade-offs between science-based decisionmaking and political pressure. A group of 16 leading wolf research scientists has raised serious questions about the scientific basis of the proposal to ‘de-list’ the wolf. This in turn raises the question of whether the Obama administration is once again setting science aside when its message is politically inconvenient.

Political “optics” problem for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts proposed removal of wolf protection on hold (August 12, 2013)

See also, Union of Concerned Scientists: Scientific Integrity, Beetles, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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