For Immediate Release

Vilsack’s Disturbing Suppression of USDA Science

His biotech advocacy quashed research showing adverse effects.

WASHINGTON - As Secretary of Agriculture under Obama, Tom Vilsack routinely interfered with scientific work that big agriculture found bothersome, charges Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  The group is urging the Senate to review these concerns and secure remedies before confirming Vilsack’s return to USDA’s helm.  
 
Under Vilsack, USDA scientists pointed to numerous examples of –

  • Directives not to publish data on certain topics of particular sensitivity to industry;    
  • Orders to rewrite scientific articles already accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal to remove sections that could provoke industry objections;  
  • Inordinate, sometimes indefinite, delays in approving submission for publication of scientific papers that may be controversial;   
  • Restrictions on topics that USDA scientists may address in conference presentations; and  
  • Targeting USDA scientists who industry identified as troublesome for harassment. 

“Tom Vilsack’s record on scientific integrity at USDA was appalling,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, noting Vilsack’s unquestioning public embrace of genetically-modified crops, ultra-potent pesticides, and other industrialized agricultural practices conflicts with the Biden pledge to adhere to “science and truth.” “Government research documenting what is really going in American agriculture does not need a corporate filter.” 
 
One prominent Vilsack victim was Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, a Senior Research Entomologist and Lab Supervisor, who was punished for publishing research about adverse effects on monarch butterflies from widely-used neonicotinoid insecticides (or “neonics”) and for a supposedly unauthorized appearance before a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. 
 
Nor was Lundgren’s case isolated. A late 2016 Office of Inspector General survey of nearly 1,000 USDA scientists found more than 120 scientists reported their research had “been altered or suppressed for reasons other than technical merit.” A majority of respondents felt that USDA under Vilsack did not strongly promote scientific integrity or refused to venture an opinion.
 
Adding insult to injury, the Scientific Integrity Policy adopted by Vilsack condones scientific suppression and publication restrictions, including a provision that scientists “should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently.” 
 
“Unless he pledges to implement significant safeguards for scientists, Tom Vilsack should not be confirmed,” added Whitehouse, noting that Vilsack rejected a 2015 PEER petition asking that the policy be strengthened by incorporating policies other federal agencies have adopted.  “The days in which federal agencies function as scientific gulags should be behind us.”

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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