Falsified Government Water Quality Tests Highlight Need for More Federal Scientists

January 6, 2022 | 12:00 pm
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Jacob Carter
Former Contributor

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and further reporting on the issue by E&E news, thousands of water quality sample tests were falsified at the agency’s National Water Quality Laboratory. The USGS investigation found that an unnamed analyst intentionally falsified test results from March 2019 through June 2020 claiming an unmanageable workload.

This development is particularly concerning because part of this lab’s mission is to provide “water information [that] is fundamental to national and local economic well-being,” such as  identifying areas with levels of nitrogen pollution that can be damaging for both local and downstream communities. The loss of scientific integrity at this lab also suggests that there may be deeper issues at play at the agency, such as pressure on employees due to a lack of capacity.

Unrealistic work expectations

“I did this due to an immense feeling of pressure to get results out as quickly as possible. I am the only analyst currently running the line and I felt this was my best option.”

–Unnamed research analyst who falsified test results at USGS lab

People often take shortcuts that can lead to a loss of integrity when working under pressure.

You likely haven’t made it through this week’s news cycle without hearing about Theranos, the former Silicon Valley biotech company that defrauded its investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. The company promised a revolutionary blood testing technology requiring little blood and producing results rapidly. The technology never existed.

The Theranos story provides a broader picture of the pressures many start-up companies face. Tyler Schultz, a whistleblower in the Theranos case who is now running his own start-up, said that he is pitching investors and making a lot of grand promises. “I’m under pressure to exaggerate technology claims, exaggerate revenue projection claims,” he said in an interview with NPR. As Schultz and the Theranos case show, the prevailing culture at start-ups often can pressure workers to blur the line between truth and reality.

Scientists are often under pressure as well, particularly those seeking academic jobs and tenure who will be familiar with the phrase “publish or perish.” And having your research published in high impact-factor journals that are heavily cited (such as Nature  or The New England Journal of Medicine) can really boost your career. These kinds of pressures can sometimes lead to falsified data, manipulated results, and other issues of research integrity.

Importantly, the publication of faulty research can have a significant impact on public health and safety. Take, for example, faulty studies published on supposed COVID-19 cures like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. Both hydroxycholorquine and ivermectin still have faithful followers even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have clearly stated they are unproven treatments.

In the case of the USGS employee who falsified data, it’s clear that unreasonable work expectations combined with the need for job security similarly contributed to a loss of scientific integrity that could have negatively impacted public well-being. Other staff from this lab reported similar issues during the scientific integrity investigation.

The USGS lab receives an annual average of almost 39,000 samples and produces around 1.8 millions results – staffers report that the work is “relentless.” Lab analysts are required to process results in 30 days of receipt but encouraged to provide results in 14 days. Witnesses interviewed during the investigation of this case say that the lab section has lacked consistent leadership for years. Witnesses added that the lack of leadership has led to low morale, suscipicion of supervisors, and confusion about work processes such as who junior staff report to and how to address problems.

Understaffing also can create pressure

Research should always be conducted with integrity, but I must admit that even I, a scholar who focuses on issues of scientific integrity, feel empathy for the USGS analyst involved in this water sampling case. I cannot imagine being the only analyst running thousands of samples, all of which need to be processed in (ideally) 14 days’ time. That seems like extreme pressure!

This USGS analyst is likely not the only federal scientist who has recently felt the immense pressure of trying to get work done with a limited number of staff. As we reported earlier this year in The Federal Brain Drain, thousands of scientists across multiple science-based agencies left their posts during the prior administration. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was hit the hardest, losing roughly 700 scientists, but other agencies such as USGS also lost more than 100 scientists.

While some federal scientists left of their own accord or took retirement buyout packages, political meddling under the prior administration certainly resulted in the departure of many others. For example, the relocation of two of the Department of Agriculture’s research agencies – the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – from Washington, DC to Kansas City, MO resulted in the departure of approximately 75 percent of affected employees.

The prior administration also used reassignments to force certain staff members working on what it viewed as contentious issues (such as climate change) out of agencies. Joel Clement, a climate change researcher at the Department of the Interior was reassigned to a position tracking royalties for the fossil fuel industry. Clement ended up blowing the whistle on the administration after former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke testified to Congress that he used reassignments to try to force staff members to leave their posts.

The loss of scientific staff at agencies means a loss of work on safeguards for all of us. Agency scientists help ensure that we breathe clean air and drink clean water, and provide guidance during emergencies like pandemics. As agencies are drained of their scientific expertise, it becomes more difficult for the remaining staff, and government as a whole, to fulfill its duties to its people.

Scientific capacity issues remain

A lack of scientific capacity may create pressure on staff members that perpetuates losses of scientific integrity across federal agencies. Current staff shortages are partly a continuation of the prior administration’s attacks on scientists and their work due to its efforts to hollow out federal agencies of scientists. The Biden administration must prioritize hiring more scientists and supporting them as part of its efforts to bolster scientific integrity.

The Biden administration has taken steps to strengthen scientific integrity across the federal government ensuring scientists and their work are insulated from political interference. The administration also has recognized the shortage of federal scientists and has committed to hiring experts to fill the gaps. The EPA has hired 500 staff since President Biden took office, and Administrator Michael Regan promises the agency will hire more staff over this year. In the case of the USGS water quality lab, management positions have now been filled.

If you are an early- or mid-career level scientist interested in becoming a public servant, UCS developed a toolkit to guide your search, application, and interview processes. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and as we face the unprecedented effects of climate change, scientists are needed more than ever to help inform government policy. Given the challenges of our time, the Biden administration must move beyond the status quo and hire enough scientists to protect our country and its people.