Professionalism/Jonathan Lundgren and USDA

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Background[edit]

In 2015, veteran USDA researcher, Jonathan Lundgren, filed a whistleblower suit against the USDA. Lundgren argued the USDA was unfairly persecuting him because his research exploring the negative impact of pesticides on pollinator lifecycles did not support the USDA's agenda. [1] However, Lundgren's case is complicated by his inappropriate behavior and disregard for office policy.

Jonathan Lundgren[edit]

Jonathan Lundgren is an agroecologist who studies the application of ecological processes to agricultural production systems. In 2004, he received his PhD in entomology from the University of Illinois and worked with the US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service for 11 years. In 2011, the USDA recognized him as one of the best scientists to watch. His research focuses on assessing the risk of pest management methods and developing long-term solutions for regenerative food systems. [2] Lundgren is an advocate for regenerative agriculture, and delivered a TED Talk in 2017 about the importance of insects and the key principles of regenerative agriculture, which he believes is the future of food production. Regenerative agriculture differs from traditional farming, which typically dedicates huge plots of land to 1 to 3 plants species. Instead, it seeks to eliminate the need for pesticides by encouraging high plant diversity, which will naturally counteract the pest problem.

Pesticide Regulation[edit]

The USDA and EPA regulate pesticide use in agriculture with the intent to protect the environment and consumers. They also work with farmers to increase crop yields, helping bolster the economy and generate profit, presenting a potential conflict of interest. There is a huge market for pesticides, with the US alone spending $12 billion in 2008 on pesticides. The number one most used pesticide, Imidacloprid, is a type of neonicotinoid. Neonicotinoids are the focus of the majority of Lundgren's research. The four most popular crops in the US, corn, soybeans, potatoes, and cotton, are responsible for the highest pesticide use.

USDA's Scientific Integrity Policy[edit]

The USDA's scientific integrity policy sets guidelines to maximize the integrity of research. Regulations ensure the ensure objectivity, reproducibility, and lack of bias. Measures are in place to address data fabrication, political interference, and other forms for research misconduct. Many key policy points are qualified. For example, scientists are encouraged to communicate their findings with the public and media. However, prior to doing so, they must obtain supervisor approval.[3] This hinders their ability to freely discuss and share their work.

Research and Suspension Timeline[edit]

2012 Soybean Study[edit]

In 2012, Lundgren published a study which found that Syngenta's thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid, caused health problems in bees. The pesticide was designing to kill aphids, an insect that damages soybean plants. His findings indicated the pesticide did not improve soybean yields and impacted the killed the aphid's predators, rather than the aphids.[4] His findings were covered by NPR. Upper management responded, “You shouldn’t talk to the press anymore without prior approval," claiming that they were trying to protect him.

2013 RNAi Study[edit]

In 2013, Lundgren published a study exploring the negative effects of RNAi pesticides on bee colonization. At the time, RNAi pesticides were the cutting edge. His research evaluated the potential risks of RNAi pesticides on the ecosystem. He focused on a product by Monsanto, which invested lots of resources and funds into RNAi research[5]. It is important to note Monsanto has a history of conflict with whistleblowers. Lundgren's research could slow down their regulatory approval timeline. Lundgren's work was covered by the Boulder Weekly, a Colorado Newspaper.[6] After agreeing to an interview, Lundgren was reprimanded for violating his supervisor’s order and violating the scientific integrity policy by not seeking approval to interact with the media.

First Suspension[edit]

Shortly after publishing his RNAi research, Lundgren was the target of a misconduct investigation, which resulted in his first suspension. At the time, Lundgren felt that this was another step in a witch hunt, targeting him for his research. Lundgren was investigated for misconduct and unprofessional behavior that violated USDA standards for office conduct. He participated in water cooler talk, used inappropriate, vulgar nicknames for his coworkers, and comported himself in an unruly manner, such as humping an office chair.[7]

Although his coworkers were also participating, none were reprimanded. Management argued Lundgren's actions made his coworkers uncomfortable. However, his coworkers sent a letter back to management in support of Lundgren, questioning his suspension.

2015 Monarch Butterfly Study[edit]

Lundgren’s next clash with his superiors came when he published a study exploring the impact of pesticides on the monarch lifecycle. After meeting with his supervisor, Lundgren was told the paper only needed minor edits. Office convention dictated that once these minor edits were made, another round of approval was not required before submitting drafts to scientific journals. Lundgren made these changes, then gave a manuscript to an NPR contact and was approved for publication in the journal The Science of Nature. Two weeks later, Lundgren was reprimanded for publishing on the grounds he "failed to follow supervisor instructions."[8] He was also reprimanded for interacting with NPR without approval. Prior to this dispute, pollinator research had been classified as sensitive material. This further suggests Lundgren may have been unfairly targeted for the content of his work, rather than his actions.

Second Suspension[edit]

A few weeks after Lundgren published the Monarch study, he was suspended a second time. Lundgren was set to speak at the National Academy of Sciences conference. When he got off his plane, he had received email notice he was suspended for two weeks without pay. Although Lundgren had put in his travel request, he had forgotten to sign the papers. What he saw as accidental oversight, the USDA saw as negligence.[9] This resulted in a 30-day suspension, which was later reduced to 14 days. In a letter to Lundgren, John McMurtry, the USDA's Associate Director of the Plains Area, explained the reasons for suspension including: violation of travel procedures, failure to follow supervisor instruction, falsification, and misuse of a government vehicle. [10] Lundgren felt unfairly targeted by the USDA. Many of his fellow scientists did not submit travel requests at all or submitted them for reimbursement upon their return. His coworkers did not face any consequences, where as he faced a suspension for a relatively minor mistake.

Whistleblower Lawsuit[edit]

After his second suspension Lundgren filed a whistleblower complaint to the USDA branch of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The MSPB is an independent agency established to protect federal employees from unfair treatment. In his complaint, Lundgren addressed the professional toll the USDA placed on his work. He argued the USDA was infringing upon his research rights under the Scientific Integrity Policy. In his complaint, Lundgren references a "sudden but escalating pattern of impediments," which included detailed scrutiny of his data, collection procedures, and grant funding.[11] The USDA investigating office dismissed his complaint as “invalid” and “frivolous.”

In October 2015, Lundgren hired a personal lawyer from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). PEER filed a whistleblower suit against the USDA on his behalf. Coinciding with the suit filing, Steve Volk, a freelance writer, wrote a series of articles published in the Washington Post that painted Lundgren as a victim. This put his narrative in the public eye. In December 2015, a judge overruled the USDA and gave Lundgren formal permission to file his complaint.[12] In March 2016, Lundgren withdrew his suit. To date, he has not refiled, expanded his suit, or reached a settlement. Instead, he chose to resign from his position at the USDA.

Generalizable Ethical Dilemmas[edit]

Practice vs. Policy[edit]

In the workplace, sometimes convention takes precedence over written policy. In Lundgren's case, his coworkers sent a letter to USDA management stating that they supported Lundgren and were okay with what the USDA deemed as misconduct.[7] However, this begs a question in regards to professionalism: if everyone has a general consensus that a particular rule can be broken, is it ethical to do so? Did Lundgren's behavior make him less of a professional? While potentially harmless in Lundgren's case, pushing the boundaries on policy, such as software development teams cutting testing cases[13][14][15], or data dredging in a research group[16], has historically lead to devastating consequences.

Compromises in "Professional Integrity"[edit]

Another aspect of Ludgren's case to consider is his compromises in "professional integrity" for the greater good. There are several instances where Lundgren broke policy. For example, he posted an article in which he wrote about his opinions on corn policies. By writing about policy, he was breaking one of USDA’s rules and his name was removed from the article.[7] This paper, in addition to his other controversial publications, were blatant disobedience to orders or policy. If the definition of professional integrity were strictly a dedication to policy, it would be clear that Lundgren was not a professional. However, professional integrity may instead be interpreted such that there is a dedication to the profession. Lundgren's actions imply that he felt he had a professional duty to share his findings with the public, and therefore his dedication to his profession superseded that of policy.

Inconsistent Enforcement of Policies[edit]

Inconsistent enforcement of policies is also a problem seen in Lundgren's case. For example, Lundgren was reprimanded for actions that his coworkers did without repercussion. Furthermore, the USDA explicitly states: "USDA scientists are encouraged to participate in communications with the media regarding their scientific findings."[3] However, Lundgren claims to be retaliated against for doing so. In particular, he claims that the USDA was cherry-picking which studies they wanted the public to see. This type of retaliation was also seen in cases where women employed in the tech industry reported sexual harassment to HR, and were soon targeted for behavior that others were not punished for, and sometimes even fired, while the attackers in the harassment cases were protected for their "high performance."[17][18]

Defending the Profession[edit]

In Lundgren's case, standing up for himself with the whistleblower suit ultimately did nothing for him personally. However, Lundgren had caught the public's attention and there was a demand for reform in regards to scientific integrity and censorship.[19][20] A similar idea is reflected in the sexual harassment cases that directly relates to the willingness to stand up for oneself for the sake of their profession. The victims who called attention to their situation in the sexual harassment cases were often fired; it did not help their personal situation. However, their actions brought the larger problem of sexual harassment in the tech industry to the public, and it was a call for reform.[18]

Conflict of Interest[edit]

Lastly, the potential for conflict of interest in Lundgren's case should not be ignored. Lundgren spoke at many anti-pesticide conferences for monetary compensation. He also started his own farm, Blue Dasher Farm, while working at the USDA, and it is possible that he had a personal agenda to increase media attention on sustainable farming practices in order to promote his own farm.[21] It is possible that Lundgren was not completely devoted to his profession and had other motives.

Ultimately, this case shows that many problems in the professional world are often are full of nuances and contingencies, and there is not always a clear answer in questions of ethical integrity.

References[edit]

  1. Grieve, C. (2016, April 08). Dr. Jonathan Lundgren: USDA Whistleblower. Retrieved from https://foodintegritynow.org/2016/04/08/dr-jonathan-lundgren-usda-whisleblower/.
  2. http://notill.org/dr-jonathan-lundgren
  3. a b https://www.usda.gov/sites/default/files/documents/usda-scientific-integrity-policy.pdf
  4. Philpott, T. (2017, June 24). This scientist uncovered problems with pesticides. Then the government started to make his life miserable. Retrieved from https://www.motherjones.com/food/2015/12/usda-researcher-claims-harrassment-and-retaliation-pesticide-research/
  5. Dr. Jonathan Lundgren has filed suit against USDA for impeding his research on harmful effects of pesticides. (2015, October 30). Retrieved from https://www.farmingsecrets.com/dr-jonathan-lundgren-has-filed-suit-against-usda-for-impeding-his-research-on-harmful-effects-of-pesticides/
  6. AlterNet. (2019, January 31). USDA Silences Its Own Scientists' Warnings About the Dangerous Effects of Pesticides on Bees. Retrieved from https://www.ecowatch.com/usda-silences-its-own-scientists-warnings-about-the-dangerous-effects--1891083535.html
  7. a b c Volk, S. (March 3, 2016). Was a USDA scientist muzzled because of his bee research?
  8. Volk, S. (2015, October 28). Suspended USDA researcher alleges agency tried to block his research into harmful effects of pesticides on bees, butterflies. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2015/10/28/suspended-usda-researcher-alleges-agency-tried-to-block-his-research-into-harmful-effects-of-pesticides-on-bees-butterflies/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6b0cc410ad6e
  9. PEER.(n.d.). Whistleblower Retaliation Narrative. Washington, D.C.: PEER. https://www.peer.org/assets/docs/usda/10_26_15_Lundgren_Whistleblower_%20Complaint.pdf
  10. McMurtry, J. (2015, August 3). Suspension Decision [Letter to Jonathan Lundgren].https://www.peer.org/assets/docs/usda/10_26_15_Suspension_decision.pdf
  11. Ganga, M. L. (2016, February 29). Government rejects scientist's claim it tried to cover up his pesticide research. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/29/scientist-usda-negative-pesticide-research-neonicotinoids-environment
  12. Volk, S. (2015, December 31). Judge green lights whistleblower claim against USDA by pesticide researcher. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2015/12/23/judge-green-lights-whistleblower-claim-against-usda-by-pesticide-researcher/?utm_term=.040ad05cc642
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17199912
  14. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/27/automobiles/nissan-recalls-990000-cars-and-trucks-for-air-bag-malfunction.html
  15. https://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msp98/news/mco991110.html
  16. https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1002106
  17. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/289498
  18. a b https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/31/technology/google-sexual-harassment-walkout.html
  19. https://foe.org/news/2016-03-usda-urged-to-reform-scientific-integrity-policy-after-scientific-censorship/
  20. https://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2016/03/08/usda-urged-reform-scientific-integrity-policy-after-allegations-scientific
  21. Entine, J. (2019, January 01). Jonathan Lundgren says USDA is censoring him for criticizing neonicotinoids: What's the truth? Retrieved from https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/03/14/jonathan-lundgren-says-usda-censoring-criticizing-neonicotinoids-whats-truth/