Science Policy & Funding News

USGS Seeks to Contain Damage from Scientific Misconduct at Lab

Although damage from the specific incident "is relatively well contained," the issue threatens the agency's reputation for high-quality science and goes counter to its standards, according to a USGS official.


Two separate but related “scientific integrity incidents” at a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) laboratory have rattled the agency, which, officials told Eos, is striving to contain and repair the damage, fix management flaws, and protect the survey’s science reputation. A 15 June report by the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that “the full extent of the impacts are not yet known but, nevertheless, that they will be serious and far ranging,” according to deputy inspector general Mary Kendall.

According to the OIG report, during the period 2008–2014, employees at the inorganic section of the survey’s Energy Geochemistry Laboratory in Lakewood, Colo., improperly manipulated mass spectrometer data. After learning of the improper activity in October 2014, USGS convened a Scientific Integrity Review Panel that concluded that the lab had a “chronic pattern of scientific misconduct.” The agency self-reported the matter to OIG and shuttered the inorganic section of the lab this spring, according to USGS. Previously, in 2008, USGS had discovered an earlier spell of scientific misconduct at the same lab, from 1996 through 2008, but involving different staff. The 15 June OIG report focused on the newer 2008–2014 episode.

The lab’s inorganic section, which provided scientific support for the USGS Energy Resources Program (ERP), used its mass spectrometer to conduct chemical inorganic analyses of water samples and solid samples, including coal and rock, according to the agency.

Two Dozen Projects Potentially Affected

“Since ERP data is used to support both scientific decision-making and understanding, inaccurate data has significant scientific consequences,” the OIG report stated. With regard to the 2008–2014 period, 24 research and assessment projects with national and global interest “were potentially affected by erroneous information,” according to OIG. The projects represent about $108 million in funding from fiscal years 2008 through 2014, with the inorganic section of the laboratory receiving $4.1 million in funding since fiscal year 2008.

Potentially affected projects listed by OIG include a toxic trace metals analysis of water in the greater Everglades ecosystem in Florida, an analysis of metals released into waters associated with coal bed natural gas production activities in Alaska, and an assessment of uranium in the environment in and around Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

One scientific report, on air quality studies relating to feed coals in South African boilers, was retracted, and at least seven other reports have been delayed, according to OIG.

Concern About the Broader Impact

USGS deputy director Bill Werkheiser told Eos that the damage from the 2008–2014 misconduct “is relatively well contained,” with the agency knowing how the information is being used and contacting affected parties. However, he stressed that the bigger concern is the impact of this issue on the agency’s reputation for high-quality defensible science, which he said is the survey’s deepest core value.

“This issue threatens that reputation. So we take it very, very seriously,” Werkheiser said, adding that the incident “goes counter to [USGS] standards.”

Agency Response to OIG Report

In response to the incident, Werkheiser said USGS is implementing a quality management system for its minerals and energy programs to conduct quality assurance and quality control “in a very systematic and proactive way.” In addition, he said the agency has established a quality assurance management position.

In a written response to the OIG last week, dated 13 July, USGS concurred with the OIG report’s sole recommendation that the agency notify all stakeholders of the scientific integrity incident. The agency stated that it has completed notifications to USGS and external customers and “will continue to assess the full impacts of this data quality issue on research and publications.” The agency also stated that the majority of the 24 identified projects “are still viable and of value, and research is continuing. Consequently, we believe that the actual impacts were a subset of the total costs of the 24 projects.”

Werkheiser told Eos that one person who worked at the lab is no longer with USGS and that “some disciplinary actions are still ongoing.” According to a 25 May USGS notice, some data were manipulated “to correct for calibration failures and to improve results of standard reference materials and unknowns.” Also, some raw data from the mass spectrometer “are unavailable, thus the measured concentrations cannot be re-checked for accuracy.”

Jon Kolak, associate coordinator within the USGS Energy Resources Program, told Eos, “As far as we can ascertain, there was no personal gain or [other self-serving] motive. Certainly, there does not appear to have been any intent to influence any particular decision or outcome,” said Kolak, who has helped compile information about the episode.

Werkheiser said that after USGS uncovered the first incident, which lasted from 1998 to 2008, the agency replaced some personnel and attempted to implement quality assurance standards. “We’ll admit that we had some managerial issues there and we weren’t paying as close oversight as we should have. That since has changed.”

Congressional Interest

The most recent incident has caught the attention of Congress. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) raised the topic during a 23 June oversight hearing by the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Last week, USGS briefed the offices of U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake and Rep. Paul Gosar, all of whom are Republicans representing Arizona. The agency told them there is no connection between the 2008–2014 data quality incident at the lab and USGS research related to uranium in the environment in and around the Grand Canyon. That research fed into a Bureau of Land Management study and then secretary of the interior Ken Salazar’s 2012 decision to place a 20-year exploration and mining moratorium on about 1 million acres of federal lands in northern Arizona. At the time, Flake and McCain voiced opposition to the moratorium.

Legislation (H.R. 3882) introduced in 2015 by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) would permanently withdraw these lands and establish a Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument.

Kolak, one of the briefers, told Eos, “No data from this laboratory made its way into the USGS report that ultimately factored into considerations for whether to withdraw lands regarding uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area. In other words, there is no connection between data in the lab and that particular policy decision.”

A spokesman for Sen. Flake told Eos that the survey “has provided Sen. Flake and his staff additional information on how the lab that is a subject of the IG report may have been involved in Arizona studies, including studies on uranium. That information is currently being evaluated.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), USGS seeks to contain damage from scientific misconduct at lab, Eos, 97, Published on 22 July 2016.
Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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