Are Scientific Integrity Policies Working? The Case of the Freshwater Mussels

August 15, 2013 | 11:43 am
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

In a letter released by Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA) and first reported in E&E Daily (subscription), and later by the Associated Press, the Interior Department Inspector General criticized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for failing to make restitution to whistleblowers who rightly exposed scientific integrity violations by their supervisors, and for failing to discipline the supervisors for their actions. To avoid further perceptions of impropriety, the FWS should respond quickly to the inspector general and detail how the agency is following up on the investigation.

The case concerns freshwater mussels, which the U.S. Geological Survey calls the most imperiled species in the United States. According to the FWS, North America has the highest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world. More than half of the 78 known species are considered imperiled by federal or state officials. Scientists and governments are working right now to establish self-sustaining mussel populations in American rivers. (Note that this is different from the invasive zebra mussel, which is harming many aquatic ecosystems).

Photo of volunteers in river

Virginia Tech students and volunteers release endangered freshwater mussels in the Powell River. Photo: USFWS

Mussels can filter contaminants out of water, reducing water treatment costs. But federal protections for mussels can have other economic consequences. Dredging, pollution, and siltation can have a significant impact on the survival of mussel species; all are related to human activity. Some companies and individuals do not like restrictions placed on their activity to protect endangered organisms such as these.

What we know

A complaint was made in 2012 under the Department of Interior Scientific Integrity Policy. In a positive development, the Interior Department is now posting the results of scientific integrity investigations on its website. It appears that the inspector general’s letter relates to Case #ESO-S0000340 (you can search for it).

According to the complaint, staff had placed equipment at a suspected contaminant source to measure pollution and its effect on freshwater mussels. At the request of a private company, and over objections from state and federal biologists, staff were ordered to move the monitoring equipment 30 feet downstream.

Obviously, this would result in different measurements. The department found that the supervisors’ actions were “a significant departure from accepted practices” and resulted in a “loss of scientific integrity.”

Three separate complainants reported to the inspector general that they had faced retaliation due to filing the complaint. In coordination with the inspector general, FWS found that “the allegations of scientific misconduct had occurred and that the supervisors had taken improper administrative action against the complainants, to include loss of pay and transfer of duties.”

Freshwater mussels

Dozens of freshwater mussel species live in U.S. rivers. More than half are considered imperiled. Mussels can act as natural filters, reducing water treatment costs. Photo: Flickr user tlindenbaum

But the inspector general writes that “over a year has passed since the investigation was initiated, and over two months have passed since the findings of misconduct and loss of integrity were determined.” She goes on to write that months of discussions “have not resulted in any formal and permanent action against the offending supervisors”—indeed, they seem to have received promotions—nor have the whistleblowers received any restitution.

Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure the details of the case because the inspector general’s letter is sufficiently vague, and the summary on the website provides few details on what actually happened. The Interior Department is attempting to allow for accountability without compromising the privacy of individuals who are determined to be innocent of misconduct. Nobody wants a witch hunt. But the department should provide more detail regarding the case studies that are found to have merit. And it’s difficult to determine whether the inspector general’s complaints of inaction are valid.

Did the scientific integrity policy help?

Encouragingly, the checks and balances seem to be working when the system breaks down. Employees observed violations of scientific integrity and reported them. The FWS conducted an investigation and found that violations occurred. The inspector general approved of the FWS evaluation process. When the IG became concerned about the measures taken (or not taken) after the investigation, the IG sent a letter to the FWS. Congressman Hastings, in his position as chair of the House Resources Committee, brought public attention to the IG’s letter, and may question Interior officials about the situation in upcoming hearings.

This is precisely the sort of pressure that Congress and the media should put on agencies to ensure that scientific integrity policies are carried out effectively and efficiently, and that whistleblowers are genuinely protected from retribution when they report wrongdoing. And eventually, the culture within federal agencies will change, where employees will feel confident that they will not face negative consequences for reporting any wrongdoing they observe. Better still, supervisors will be less likely to violate scientific integrity because they will be more likely to be caught doing so.

We can only hope.