Scientific misconduct at USGS lab affects Arizona

According to an Inspector General report published June 15, 2016, the inorganic section of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Energy Geochemistry Laboratory in Lakewood, Colo. manipulated data on a variety of projects from 1996 to 2014. The manipulation was caught in 2008, but continued another six years.

The Inspector General report “ detailed two instances in which mass spectrometer operators in the Energy Geochemistry Laboratory’s Inorganic Section had violated established laboratory practices without detection for many years. The initial incident involved scientific misconduct that began in 1996 and continued undiscovered until 2008. The second incident began in 2008 and continued undiscovered until late 2014.”

“Once the results of the inquiry became known, USGS closed the Inorganic Section, effective February 25, 2016. Along with the closure, the agency initiated personnel actions, started determining what should be done with the lab equipment, and began notifying end users of potentially suspect data generated in the lab. USGS currently is assessing the full impacts of the incident on affected research and assessment projects, a process that will take some time to complete. USGS accused the chemist of data manipulation by intentionally changing the results produced by the mass spectrometer. The chemist also failed to preserve the data. Further, the Bureau accused the chemist of failing to operate the mass spectrometer according to established practices, which constituted scientific misconduct.”

“Twenty-four research and assessment projects that have national and global interest were potentially affected by erroneous information. These affected projects represented about $108 million in funding from FY 2008 through 2014.” Assessment of uranium in the environment in and around Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona was one of the affected projects.

Arizona State Geologist, Lee Allison, notes on his blog:

“According to the report, the matter was discovered in late 2014, but had been taking place since 2008. This covers the time period when the Secretary of Interior was conducting a review of impacts of potential mineral exploration and development, particularly of uranium, in northern Arizona. As a result of the federal studies, the Secretary placed a 20-year moratorium on exploration and mining on nearly 1 million acres of federal lands in the region.”

“The fraudulent data could bring into question the scientific justification of the land withdrawal, and the current political effort to establish a 1.8 million acre national monument in the region specifically to protect the area from impacts on water from uranium mining.”

My report, “Uranium mining ban near Grand Canyon all politics, no science” was on work done by the Arizona Geological Survey which depended, in part, on USGS data. I think, however, that the basis of the Arizona Geological Survey report remains valid.

Read full Inspector General report.

UPDATE from the Daily Caller:

EXCLUSIVE: Congressman Says Fed Lab Closure For Data Manipulation Is ‘Suspicious’

Sally Jewell speaks at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, California. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Mis-conduct by two U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) officials led to the “suspicious” shutdown of a federal scientific lab in Lakewood, Colorado, without informing Congress, a skeptical lawmaker and career engineer told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“The way they closed the facility without notifying Congress of it until after the fact, that seems a little suspicious,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican and member of the House Natural Resources Committee, in an interview Monday.

“If it was just some tweaking of the equipment, then something’s wrong. They didn’t close the facility over a piece of equipment being mis-calibrated,” Westerman told TheDCNF. To date, no federal official has publicly explained why the two analysts manipulated the data over such a long period of time.

The unusual closure occurred eight years after a USGS analyst resigned in 2008 while under investigation for manipulating energy-related data from 1996 to 2008. He had worked in the inorganic section of the Energy Geochemistry Laboratory. Despite the resignation, however, a second analyst almost immediately continued distorting research data until 2014.

USGS consequently closed the lab in March 2016, but Westerman thinks it is odd that an entire lab was shuttered without first telling Congress.

The analysts consistently calibrated equipment beyond what’s typically allowed within the scientific community, which affected test outcomes, often altering data by as much as 20 percent, USGS spokeswoman Anne-Berry Wade previously told TheDCNF.

The manipulated data was “basic scientific research,” said Westerman, who was a professional engineer for 24 years before entering politics, with degrees in agricultural and biological engineering. “You’re talking about the building blocks of research.”

Because the data is so important, Westerman worries that “this stuff has a domino effect. If that data is flawed coming out of that research lab, then all that research downstream is flawed. I would hate to think that any kind of project or any big policy decisions were made by some flawed data.”

Westerman also wonders what happened to the backup data for the research done by the two former USGS employees and he’s not happy with what he’s been told to date by Department of Interior officials.

“Why were all of the notes and calculations and backup data either never produced or destroyed? Why did it go on for so long? Why can’t they just give us a straight answer,” Westerman asked. “It sure smells fishy. There’s just too many things that raise a red flag and I just don’t have a good feeling about it.”

USGS officials knew about the first analyst’s misconduct years before it was stopped but they were oblivious to the second analyst’s actions, even though data issues were widely known outside the lab, TheDCNF previously reported. The agency also procrastinated in notifying scientists who may have depended upon the flawed data.

USGS is unaware of any affected policy decisions, Wade previously told TheDCNF, but the Department of the Interior Inspector General disagreed, saying in a June 2016 report that “the full extent of the impacts are not yet known but … they will be serious and far ranging.”

USGS also continues investigating the effects of the data manipulations, but refuses to reveal what punishments the second analyst or any supervisors faced. No recommendations for prosecution were referred to the Department of Justice because the IG only conducted an inspection, which bears significantly less consequences than a full investigation or audit.

“Maybe they need to take an investigative approach,” Westerman told TheDCNF. “We need to raise the rug up and see what’s under it.”

Additionally, the watchdog knew about the second analyst’s manipulation more than a year before its inspection was published.

The IG was told that a USGS employee had boasted, saying “tell me what you want and I will get it for you. What we do is like magic,” although the exact context of that quote is unclear.

“That’s highly suspect when people talk like that,” Westerman said. “That’s not what you’d expect from a federal research lab.”

The IG, however, has said no further investigations are planned.

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