Government scientist turned whistleblower Jonathan Lundgren’s case against the government was withdrawn on Thursday, but his attorney says she made the move to buy time to assess whether to expand the scientist’s complaint against the Agriculture Department.
Lundgren, an entomologist and 11-year veteran of the department’s Agricultural Research Service, filed a complaint in October with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), an independent agency designed to protect federal employees, alleging that his supervisors retaliated against him in a dispute over his research into the effect of pesticides on pollinators like butterflies and bees.
The Agriculture Department (USDA) vigorously denies this, saying Lundgren was suspended, twice, for cause – a travel-related infraction and conduct unbecoming a federal employee. The dispute was highlighted in a story published online Thursday by The Washington Post Magazine, in which Lundgren talked about starting an independent lab to conduct research free of government influence on pesticides and farming practices.
Now Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an alliance of scientists and other professionals working on environmental issues and representing Lundgren, says that several weeks ago USDA opened a new investigation—this time into whether Lundgren’s new ventures have created a conflict of interest.
“In light of that,” says Ruch, “a couple of weeks ago, the judge in the case asked if we would like to withdraw the current claim, without prejudice, which allows for the possibility of adding to it with another count of retaliation against USDA.”
A USDA spokeswoman on Friday said the agency did not object to the request to dismiss the case and added the department “cannot comment on an ongoing personnel investigation.”
Ruch says MSPB claims have to be heard within a certain time frame, so withdrawing and refiling has the added benefit of “restarting the clock” on Lundgren’s action. Earlier this week, PEER informed the judge that it would like to do just that. On Thursday, administrative Judge Patricia M. Miller made it official, ordering the case withdrawn “without prejudice.”
Miller’s order indicates that, as a matter of procedure, the case will automatically be refiled in a year, but PEER can re-file at any time starting next month. “We’ll have to see what happens,” says PEER attorney Laura Dumais, “with this new USDA investigation.”
In a separate case, PEER alleged last year in federal court that Lundgren’s experience is part of a wider pattern, claiming that “USDA managers are interfering, intimidating, harassing, and in some cases punishing civil scientists for doing work that has inconvenient implications for industry and could have direct policy/regulatory ramifications.”
That suit requests a change in the USDA’s internal scientific integrity policy, including a directive that requires scientists to refrain from making statements to the media that might even be “construed” as judgments on USDA or federal policy. Ruch says the policy is written to allow the government “to punish anyone it wants.”
In a recent interview for the Post Magazine story, USDA-ARS Administrator Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young said that internal agency policies prohibit her from taking about personnel matters. But she defended the agency’s stance on scientific integrity, citing it as a bedrock principle.
“There is no question that ARS scientists are leaders in the pollinator research space,” Jacobs-Young said in a follow up statement issued Thursday through an agency spokeswoman, “and USDA scientists as a whole have been leading voices on the factors responsible for pollinator losses.”
Jacobs-Young cites ARS statistics, indicating the agency has spent $82 million in “cutting-edge pollinator research” in the past six years and published 200 pollinator-related journal articles over the last decade, exploring causes for bee and other pollinator deaths.
“To maintain the quality and integrity of this work,” says Jacobs-Young, “ARS actively fosters a culture of excellence and transparency in our science and takes allegations regarding scientific integrity very seriously. We thoroughly review any alleged violations brought to our attention. We also want to make clear that we do not tolerate discrimination or violations in workplace rules or regulations.”
Last month, the USDA’s inspector general announced an audit would take place later this year in response to the “significant volume” of complaints they’ve had on their office’s hotline, alleging scientific censorship within USDA on pesticides and other issues.
Steve Volk is a contributing editor for Discover.