Washington, DC — The U.S. Interior Department has rejected a complaint from one of its own Scientific Integrity Officers that it presented distorted summaries of studies on the effects of a still-pending decision to remove dams in the Klamath River. Interior’s review confirmed the substance of the complaint but concluded that blatant inaccuracies and critical omissions did not constitute scientific misconduct, according to a response posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Dr. Paul Houser, a hydrometeorologist, took leave from his university position to become a Science Advisor to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and to serve as its Scientific Integrity Officer. In September 2011, he was asked to look over a draft press release and a summary of analyses on expected effects of removing four dams from the Klamath. The release described only positive aspects, omitting a number of major contingencies, uncertainties and possible negative effects. He elevated these concerns to the Secretary’s office. Although Reclamation’s technical staff seconded his objections and the release was ultimately changed, two weeks later he was put on probationary status and the Department took numerous related retaliatory actions. In February 2012, his position was terminated. Dr. Houser then filed a complaint that the actions against him violated the core tenets of the Interior Scientific Integrity Policy that he was formerly administering.
To help review the complaint Interior hired a consultant firm; the firm convened a three-member panel and produced a report in August that was only released last week. The panel concluded that the complaint was factually correct but did not amount to misconduct for some very curious reasons. For example –
Instances of “false precision” (where a summary has a finding that does not exist in the studies it purports to summarize) are dismissed because they are “not inconsistent” with the underlying studies;
Repeated inaccuracies – all slanted in one direction – in these short documents are excused by a panel finding that it is “normal practice” for press releases to exhibit hyperbole or falsities; and
Explicit efforts to prevent these concerns from being put into writing were discounted because the panel found them “not sufficiently unusual” to be “automatically alarmed” by them.
“By blessing abuse as ‘standard practice’ this review stood Interior’s scientific integrity policy on its head,” said Dr. Paul Houser, who also filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint which has since been resolved. “I feel like I fell through the looking glass into a world propelled by circular reasoning.”
Although the panel interviewed no witnesses, did not question Dr. Houser nor did any kind of actual investigation, it made findings about motives and intent of several of the actors inside Interior. Rather than conduct its own inquiry, Interior’s Scientific Integrity Officer, Dr. Suzette Kimball, accepted the panel’s conclusions as “definitive” and formally declared the complaint to be “Not Warranted.” Her ruling came in a January 29, 2013 letter which did not include a copy of the report on which it was based.
“It is becoming obvious that Interior’s scientific integrity process suffers from a glaring lack of integrity,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that no scientific misconduct complaints filed under Interior’s integrity rules have been found to have merit. “These rules were created at the behest of President Obama to root out rampant political manipulation of science yet in more than two years Interior has managed not to find a single instance of it.”