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How Free Are USDA Scientists To Speak Their Mind?

A crop duster sprays a field with pesticides. Former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren says that he has been persecuted by the agency because his research points out problems with popular pesticides.

For the past several years, a scientist in Brookings, S.D., has been engaged in an escalating struggle with his employer, the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. The scientist, Jonathan Lundgren, says that he has been persecuted because his research points out problems — including harm to bees — with a popular class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. The USDA, for its part, accuses the scientist of various professional misdeeds, including insubordination and sexual harassment.

It's often difficult to get to the full truth of such whistleblower cases, which is perhaps the reason this one hasn't received more attention. So The Washington Post and freelance reporter Steve Volk deserve credit for their investigation into the case, featured this week in the Post's Sunday Magazine.

I won't go through the whole article here; read it yourself. Perhaps the most striking anecdote in it has nothing to do with Lundgren. It describes the experience of the USDA's former head of bee research, Jeff Pettis, while testifying before a congressional committee about the causes of honeybee declines.

The hearing, as Pettis describes it, was stacked with witnesses who downplayed the impact of pesticides on bees. Pettis was asked to talk about another cause of the bees' problems, a pest called the varroa mite. Pettis did, however, bring up the dangers of pesticides. When the hearing was over, the committee chairman, Republican Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia, told Pettis that he had not "followed the script." Pettis, who has since been relieved of his management responsibilities, confirmed to The Salt that he was quoted accurately by the Post.

The incident suggests that some members of Congress, at least, expect USDA researchers to follow a script.

Lundgren's main offense, it appears, was also in some sense going off-script. He stepped beyond the gathering and publishing of data into the realm of opinion and policy. He talked publicly about the environmental dangers of common agricultural practices and about ways to change what farmers do.

Among scientists, ARS researchers have a reputation for being extremely cautious. The Lundgren case, if it helps explain some of the caution, raises an uncomfortable possibility for the USDA: Perhaps this caution is born of fear.

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