(AP Photo/Andy Duback, File)

A prominent scientist in the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service has just cleared the first hurdle in an ongoing whistleblower claim against the agency.

Last week, Judge Patricia M. Miller rejected the USDA’s request to dismiss research entomologist Jonathan Lundgren’s complaint as “frivolous.” The USDA had argued that Lundgren’s complaint was based purely on “speculative and unsupported” allegations.

Miller, an administrative judge with the Merit Systems Protection Board, also set a Jan. 6 status conference for the case and ordered both parties to come prepared to talk about a possible settlement.

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Lundgren’s whistleblower claim alleges that supervisors acted to “deter and impede” his work after he began to conduct research and give interviews suggesting pesticides pose a threat to pollinators, like butterflies and bees, according to a statement by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which filed the complaint on his behalf.

The population of honeybees, which pollinate roughly one third of the food Americans eat, has been in steep decline for a decade.

“We were very pleased to receive Judge Miller’s ruling,” says Laura Dumais, the PEER attorney representing Lundgren, “as we feel Dr. Jonathan Lundgren has a very strong case.”

Lundgren, who didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this article, appears to be in the process of leaving his government job behind. In December, he launched a crowd funding campaign to support Blue Dasher Farm, which he describes in an accompanying video and open letter as an attempt to conduct independent research. He also takes thinly veiled shots at USDA, talking up the need for “truthful science communicated plainly on topics like pesticide risks.”

Christopher Bentley, director of the USDA-ARS Information Staff, said he cannot comment on active litigation. But he said, “USDA actively fosters a culture of excellence and transparency in our scientific agencies and takes allegations regarding scientific integrity very seriously.”

PEER, an alliance of scientists and other professionals working on environmental issues, recently alleged in federal court that Lundgren’s experience is part of a wider pattern, claiming 10 USDA scientists had been ordered to “retract studies, water down findings, remove their name from authorship and endure long, indefinite delays in approving publication of papers that may be controversial.”

That suit seeks to force a change in a USDA directive that requires scientists to refrain from making statements that might even be “construed” as making judgments on USDA or federal policy.

“The job of a government scientist is to conduct research to help guide policy,” says Dumais, “so prohibiting them from saying anything that could even be ‘construed’ as commenting on policy essentially gives supervisors the right to punish anyone they want, for giving any interview at all. Dr. Jonathan Lundgren’s case is a textbook example of that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Patricia M. Miller as an administrative law judge. She is an administrative judge. The article has been corrected,