Scientist Blows USDA Whistle

Entomologist Claims Supervisors Punished Him Over Neonic Research

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Jonathan Lundgren, an entomologist at USDA's research facility in Brookings, South Dakota, claims his supervisors began harassing him over his work studying the impact of neonic pesticides on monarch butterflies. (Photo courtesy of USDA's Agricultural Research Service)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- A USDA scientist has filed a federal whistleblower complaint against the department, claiming he has been harassed by supervisors over his work on neonicotinoid insecticides and their impact on pollinators such as monarch butterflies.

Jonathan Lundgren is an entomologist at USDA's Agricultural Research Service facility in Brookings, South Dakota. His work focuses on the relationship between cropping systems and insects. Lundgren has gone from ARS golden boy to butting heads with his supervisors over his research and travel. Lundgren was recognized as an "outstanding early career scientist" as recently as 2011 for "innovative research on multi-trophic interactions within agricultural systems, emphasizing how generalist predators are affected by farm management, and how biodiversity improves pest management," according to the ARS website.

According to Lundgren's bio, he also has worked for the past two years as a panel manager for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grants Program and in 2014 served on the EPA's and European Union scientific advisory panels to assess the safety of RNAi-based (ribonucleic acid-interference) pesticides and genetically modified crops.

Lundgren, however, stated in a federal whistleblower complaint filed on Wednesday that USDA suspended him for 14 days in August after he published a study in the scientific journal "The Science of Nature" over the effects of the insecticide clothianidin on monarch butterflies. Lundgren's analysis found milkweed was being affected by clothianidin months after corn seeds coated with clothianidin were planted.

Lundgren also was punished for failing to file proper travel papers when he spoke before an ad-hoc committee last spring put together by the National Academy of Science. The committee, which is examining the science of biotechnology, asked Lundgren to testify about his work on neonics.

Agribusinesses that market neonic pesticides argue there are a variety of factors affecting pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Lundgren told DTN in an interview last May that he was feeling pressure from department officials about his neonic research.

Lundgren is being represented in his case by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. That organization essentially represents federal employees who believe they are facing political pressure because of their work. PEER filed a petition with USDA last spring asking USDA officials to better update and adhere to scientific integrity policies championed by President Barack Obama.

"Having research published in prestigious journals and being invited to present before the National Academy of Sciences should be sources of official pride, not punishment," stated Laura Dumais, an attorney for PEER. "Politics inside USDA have made entomology a high-risk specialty."

PEER stated USDA is targeting Lundgren because major agribusinesses dispute his science and work on neonics.

Lundgren had originally lodged a formal complaint against supervisors at the Agricultural Research Service about allegations that his supervisors were seeking to block his research, prevent him from talking to reporters and had disrupted his lab by moving or removing researchers under Lundgren. ARS had initially rejected that complaint, but it is under appeal.

PEER posted on its website Lundgren's narrative of disputes with his superiors at ARS, as well as Lundgren's initial complaint to the agency. Both documents highlight a timeline of events and disputes, as well as make allegations against other ARS scientists who are Lundgren's supervisors or higher-ups at the agency.

DTN sought comment from Lundgren as well as two of his supervisors listed in the complaints. Lundgren declined to comment and his supervisors did not respond to emails seeking their side of the story. DTN also emailed USDA's chief scientific integrity officer who did not respond.

Christopher Bentley, an ARS spokesman, issued a statement from the agency citing that ARS employees could not discuss the individual case, but that "ARS is committed to maintaining scientific integrity." The agency reviews such allegations and makes the result of those reviews public online.

The link Bentley sent included details about USDA's annual report on scientific integrity allegations running from May 2014 to April 2015. The annual report constituted six allegations, though none of the allegations were specifically spelled out. Each of the cases remained active as of last April, though "none were found to be a violation of the USDA Scientific Integrity Policy." The entire report summarizing those cases and USDA's work on scientific integrity for that year constituted 206 words.…

ARS, in its statement to DTN, added, "As one of the world's leading promoters of agriculture and natural resources science and research, USDA has implemented a strong scientific integrity policy to promote a culture of excellence and transparency. That includes procedures for staff to report any perceived interference with their work, seek resolution, and receive protection from recourse for doing so. We take the integrity of our scientists seriously and we recognize how critical that is to maintaining widespread confidence in our research among the scientific community, policy-makers, and the general public."

Lundgren's whistleblower complaint will now move to depositions and other discovery leading up to an evidentiary hearing, PEER stated. The resulting ruling can be appealed to a three-member federal employees tribunal and could lead to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit examining the case.

Lundgren's testimony before the National Academy of Sciences committee last March can be viewed here:…

Documents regarding Lundgren's complaints against USDA supervisors can be viewed here:…

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Chris Clayton