A prominent Agriculture Department scientist is alleging that he was suspended after complaining that the agency was blocking his research into the harmful effects of pesticides on pollinators, such as bees and butterflies.
In a whistleblower complaint filed Wednesday, Jonathan Lundgren, an entomologist and 11-year veteran of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says his supervisors retaliated against him by suspending him initially for 30 days before reducing it to 14 days.
The complaint, filed with the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, says his superiors began to “impede or deter his research and resultant publications” more than a year ago. Lundgren has also previously alleged that the agency tried to prevent him from speaking about his findings for political reasons and interfered with his ability to review the research of other scientists.
The trouble began after he published research and gave interviews about the effect that certain common pesticides were having on pollinators, according to a statement by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which filed the complaint on his behalf. The whistleblower complaint says that Lundgren’s “work showed the adverse effects of certain widely used pesticides, findings which have drawn national attention as well as the ire of the agricultural industry.”
Over the past decade, there have been dramatic declines in the population of honeybees, which play an essential role in pollinating about one-third of the food Americans eat.
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, policymakers and the general public,” Bentley said in a statement.
In suspending Lundgren, PEER says USDA cited two infractions: He provided some of his research to a scientific journal without proper approval, and he violated official travel policies in connection with lectures he delivered in Philadelphia and Washington.
In his complaint and related documents released by PEER, Lundgren says the submission of the journal article — which concerned the non-target effects of clothianidin, a widely used nicotine-based pesticide, on monarch butterflies — was not inappropriate. He calls the travel violations an inadvertent paperwork error.
Lundgren has published work suggesting that soybean seeds pretreated with neonicotinoid pesticide produce no yield benefit to farmers, who pay extra for the seeds. He wrote a paper on the potential hazards of “gene silencing” pesticides, which he said require further study to determine whether they could harm other organisms. He also peer-reviewed a report published by the Center for Food Safety called “Heavy Costs,” which was critical of neonicotinoid pesticides for providing little to no benefit to farmers and adversely affecting bees.
Lundgren, a 2011 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, has given interviews on aspects of his research, including a widely distributed interview with Minnesota Public Radio, and spoke before the National Academy of Sciences. According to the complaint, his suspension was based in part on the paperwork associated with that trip.
“Having research published in prestigious journals and being invited to present before the National Academy of Sciences should be sources of official pride, not punishment,” PEER staff counsel Laura Dumais said. “Politics inside USDA have made entomology into a most dangerous discipline.”
The whistleblower filing culminates months of speculation about Lundgren in the small community of commercial beekeepers and researchers studying their decline. Earlier this year, Lundgren’s dispute with his superiors became evident in a scientific journal.
A paper published in Environmental Science & Policy, with the sole listed author Scott W. Fausti, includes the following footnote: “I would like to acknowledge Dr. Jonathan G. Lundgren’s contribution to this manuscript. Dr. Lundgren is an entomologist employed by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). However, the ARS has required Dr. Lundgren to remove his name as joint first author from this article. I believe this action raises a serious question concerning policy neutrality toward scientific inquiry.”
That paper suggests that the combination of federal mandates for corn ethanol production and the advent of genetically modified corn crops have produced a host of unintended adverse consequences, including rising environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, stronger pest resistance and inflated corn prices.
Increasing pest resistance is of particular concern for beekeepers, whose bee populations have been declining at rates deemed “unsustainable” by Darren Cox, president of the American Honey Producers Association. Increased resistance creates a need for stronger pesticides, bringing potential harm to bees. “Beekeepers have been heavily involved in ensuring that all scientists are free to conduct unfettered research,” Cox says.
In the statement, ARS spokesman Bentley said: “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.”
But Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, said Lundgren’s whistleblower complaint adds to the debate about scientific freedom. He said USDA is essentially saying: “ ‘You can do whatever science you want, as long as it has no real-world applications.’ The rules allow for scientists to be silenced based on the content of their science.”
Volk is a freelance writer.