Scientific Integrity, Beetles, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

February 7, 2014 | 5:26 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Yesterday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released the partially-redacted results of two investigations into the conduct of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) managers, which found significant violations of scientific integrity. The cases raise questions not only as to how scientific integrity investigations will be carried out and publicly reported by the Department of Interior, but also how the violators and those who report the violations will be treated.

At issue were the actions of two high-ranking FWS officials, Dixie Porter and Luke Bell, related to Endangered Species Act protection of the American burying beetle. Notably, the beetle’s habitat is in the proposed path of the Keystone Pipeline, although it appears that flawed science was not used in any environmental reviews.

A photo of an American Burrowing Beetle

FWS officials were found to have compromised science regarding the endangered American burrowing beetle. Usually, a pair of beetles will find a small animal carcass and bury it; the carcass will provide both sustinance and protection for the beetles’ offspring. Photo: Lindsay Vivian/USFWS

Investigations Find Egregious Misconduct

According to the first released investigation, Porter and Bell developed and adopted flawed models and maps that significantly reduced the range of the beetle by 4.5 million acres. Then, they engaged in a profoundly flawed peer review process that excluded any staff member with concerns and did “not even minimally meet current peer review standards.” Agency scientists filed a complaint under the department’s scientific integrity policy, and Interior launched an investigation.

But that’s not all. Incredibly, while the first investigation was being conducted, the two officials rushed to publish a scientific paper relying on the inaccurate model in the Open Entomology Journal, knowingly violating a directive from the FWS assistant director for endangered species and failing to notify supervisors. After more complaints, a second investigation was launched.

Although FWS officials have said that the flawed January 2013 paper was immediately retracted, and an internal review was conducted to ensure the paper was not used in making policy, it still appears on the journal’s website with no note of retraction.

It gets worse from here. The second investigation also found that the two officials “knowingly impeded” the progress of the first investigation. Investigators additionally determined that “there appears to be an office atmosphere of avoiding negative feedback to management on [beetle]-related matters for fear of being viewed as disrespectful and difficult which might result in the employee being suspended by either Mr. Bell or Dr. Porter.”

The two managers were also involved in political interference in science around freshwater mussels. PEER expects to receive the scientific integrity investigation reports regarding the freshwater mussels soon.

What Happened Once Misconduct Was Found?

You might think that the two officials, found guilty of such profound political interference in science, would have faced prompt disciplinary action. But you’d be wrong. Once they had the findings in hand, Interior officials seemed not to know what to do.

In July 2013, in a letter later made public by Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA), the Interior Inspector General expressed concern about the department’s “failure to take timely and appropriate management action” against Porter and Bell (although they were not named at the time) two months after the charges of scientific misconduct were found to have merit and more than a year after complaints were made. The violators weren’t punished or reprimanded.  On the contrary, according to the inspector general, they were detailed to more prestigious assignments.

Volunteers and scientists reintroduced 171 pairs of American burying beetles in Wayne National Forest in Ohio in 2011. Photo: Wayne National Forest.

Volunteers and scientists reintroduced 171 pairs of American burying beetles in Wayne National Forest in Ohio in 2011. Photo: Wayne National Forest.

In the meantime, wrote the inspector general, the whistleblowers who filed the complaints had seen reductions in their pay and reassignment to different projects. As of July, they had not received restitution for the retaliation they faced.

FWS Director Dan Ashe subsequently disputed the inspector general’s assertions, claiming that the two officials were disciplined (article is paywalled) for some of the charges, including being stripped of supervisory responsibilities, and that disciplinary action was pending on other charges, but it’s not clear that this is the case. E&E Daily reported yesterday that as late as December, the employees were still listed as supervisors in an employee directory. PEER reports that Bell has since left FWS for a job with the oil and gas industry, and Porter is on her way out the door.

A Need for More Transparency

These are the first individual scientific integrity investigative findings to be released by the Department of Interior since it adopted a scientific integrity policy in December 2011. And securing their release wasn’t easy. The FWS initially exercised numerous exemptions in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from PEER for the documents, forcing PEER to appeal the agency’s decision to the Office of the Solicitor at the Interior Department, which partially granted the appeal.

The FOIA appeal decision likely sets minimum guidelines for how Interior should release scientific integrity reports. When it comes to releasing this sort of information, however, it shouldn’t take a FOIA request; Interior should post the results of investigations that are found to have merit as soon as they are finalized.

So is the scientific integrity policy working well? To a point. The scientists reported a problem, the problem was investigated, and the allegations were found to have merit. But even when the case is seemingly cut and dry, the punishment still does not seem to fit the crime. And without the dogged determination of PEER and Representative Hastings, we wouldn’t know what had happened beyond a short, non-specific summary in Interior’s database of closed cases.

The FWS also bungled the peer review of the science surrounding management of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act.

The Interior Department and FWS need to be more transparent in how they handle these cases and better detail how they intend to take prompt and purposeful action against those who violate scientific integrity principles and protect those who report those violations. Otherwise, accountability will be hard to come by, and those who witness political interference in science will think twice about ever making a report.