More than $100M worth of research may be tainted by govt lab misconduct

usgsMisconduct by a chemist at a Colorado lab run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has potentially affected  24 research and assessment projects, supported by $108 million in federal funding, government officials have disclosed.

According to a June 15 statement from the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the USGS, the operator of a mass spectrometer in the Inorganic Section of the Energy Resources Program’s (ERP) Energy Geochemistry Laboratory in Lakewood has been accused of scientific misconduct and manipulating data. The unit is responsible for conducting coal and water quality assessments in projects both in the United States and abroad.

The inorganic section closed following the discovery of the misconduct, and we have yet to learn the fate of the employee involved. As the statement notes, problems with the lab’s data were common knowledge among workers at the facility:

We also learned that, even though management discovered the incident in late 2014, employees had long suspected quality-related problems to be associated with the laboratory.

In the long run, we determined the scientific misconduct and data manipulation also impacted USGS organizational integrity in ways that are still unfolding and difficult to quantify.

Although USGS closed its Inorganic Laboratory on February 25, 2016, it still has not informed its many stakeholders about the scientific integrity incident and how it may potentially have impacted them.

The full report lists the impact of the misconduct on the larger community:

The Inorganic Section’s work has implications for ERP’s national and international coal and water quality assessments. Our review revealed that the impacts were far ranging, and included―

• publications that were retracted or delayed because of inaccurate information;

• potential damaged reputations of USGS and individual scientists;

• potential lost collaborations with outside organizations;

• diminished employee morale; and

• reduced public trust of USGS-generated information.

This is the second incident of misconduct to affect the laboratory. Although the current report focuses on this incident, it provides some detail about the first:

In 2014, OIG evaluated ERP’s quality control process, issuing the final report (No. CR-EV-GSV-0003-2014) in May 2015. We found that ERP’s system of quality assurance/quality control was insufficient to detect quality-related issues 4 in its science center laboratories. The report detailed two instances in which mass spectrometer operators in the Energy Geochemistry Laboratory’s Inorganic Section had violated established laboratory practices without detection for many years. The initial incident involved scientific misconduct that began in 1996 and continued undiscovered until 2008. The second incident began in 2008 and continued undiscovered until late 2014 … Following discovery of the second incident, ERP management issued a stop work order for the laboratory and began an internal investigation.

An inquiry found that the lab had:

a “chronic pattern of scientific misconduct” and that “data produced by the Inorganic Section were intentionally manipulated by the line-chemist in charge.” The identified issues predominantly affected coal and water quality research and related assessments.

More specifically:

USGS accused the chemist of data manipulation by intentionally changing the results produced by the mass spectrometer. The chemist also failed to preserve the data. Further, the Bureau accused the chemist of failing to operate the mass spectrometer according to established practices, which constituted scientific misconduct. …given the widespread use of USGS data and publications by its many customers, scientific misconduct at the Inorganic Section has serious implications for energy and environmental decisions driven by information developed at the laboratory.

Once these results emerged, the USGS closed the inorganic lab.

According to the report, the mass spectrometer in question processed approximately 3,800 samples since 2008, and customers had been complaining that processing times took six months or longer, while other labs normally provided results within a month.

Apparently, staff had suspected problems for a while:

Although management discovered the incident in late 2014, our review disclosed that employees had suspected quality-related problems with the laboratory for many years. In our interviews, USGS employees consistently voiced their distrust of the lab. The employees also expressed their preference not to use the inorganic laboratory and, instead, to use other USGS laboratories or outside commercial laboratories.

Here’s a list of the publications and projects that were affected:

Twenty-four research and assessment projects that have national and global interest were potentially affected by erroneous information … These affected projects represented about $108 million in funding from FY 2008 through 2014. ERP officials stated that they were in the process of assessing the impacts on each project for determining future actions. Among the projects—

o toxic trace metals analysis of water in the greater Everglades ecosystem in Florida;

o assessment of uranium in the environment in and around Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona for possible groundwater restoration;

o analysis of coal combustion byproducts relating to the nationwide Geochemistry of Solid Fuels project; and

o analysis of metals released into waters associated with coalbed natural gas production activities in Alaska.

• At least seven reports have been delayed and, to date, one report has been retracted. The retracted report was on air quality studies relating to feed coals in South African boilers as part of a United Nations Environmental Program study.

The report adds:

If ERP’s impact assessment shows that incorrect conclusions were reported, ERP stated that it will directly contact journals that published the papers, as well as any collaborator.

Update 6/17/16 1 p.m. eastern: We spoke with a USGS spokesperson, who told us she cannot say if the person responsible for the misconduct remains a government employee:

That’s a privacy issue, so I can’t really tell you…Appropriate personnel actions are being considered.

She explained that the agency became aware of the misconduct after new managers took over the lab a few years ago, and began investigating the rumors that had been circulating for years.

Certainly once it came to light in a more direct manner with some pretty strong compelling information, we started looking into it then.

Thankfully, she noted:

No regulatory decisions or land managing actions or laws or legal legislative decisions were made based on any results that were printed in any of the publications that used the data.

She also noted that no papers were officially “retracted,” but a 2014 USGS publication “Collaborative Studies for Mercury Characterization in Coal and Coal Combustion Products, Republic of South Africa” was “revised and republished.” The paper contains this “revision statement” added late last month:

In this revised version, corrected results for the suite of 42 samples of feed coal and 8 density separates determined by inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) replace results originally reported in the 2014 version of this report. In many cases, especially for the transition metals, values reported here are lower than those originally reported, and in some cases, the corrected results are less than 50 percent of their original values. Note that results for mercury (Hg) and halogens contained in the original report are unaffected by revisions to ICP-MS data included here. This revised version also includes the following updates: (1) data for selenium, which were not available for inclusion in the original publication, are now provided; (2) results for ICP-MS trace element data are expressed here on a whole-coal dry basis to facilitate comparison with published results for coals elsewhere; and (3) the text has been updated to take into account the U.S. Supreme Court decision of June 29, 2015, which puts on hold implementation of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in the United States.

In the case of another paper that a USGS scientist submitted to an outside journal, the research noticed the problem with a graph and was able to correct it before the paper was published, the spokesperson told us.

Other entities have used data generated from the USGS lab, she said, but

it does not appear that any outside entities are going to have to do any retractions at this time.

She noted that the agency is working hard to recover from the incident:

We are obviously disappointed that this data quality issue happened, and was allowed to go on for a while…Scientific integrity and our relationship with our stakeholders is critical.

She added:

We are certainly not aware of any situation where a partner has said ‘we don’t want to work with you guys anymore.’ We’re very fortunate in that regard. And we are really working seriously to rectify.

The agency announced it was closing the lab last month.

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4 thoughts on “More than $100M worth of research may be tainted by govt lab misconduct”

  1. Many universities and institutes have “chronic” misconduct problems around the whole world. Everybody who works there knows what is going on, people in general are afraid of talking. These problems may take many years to be solved

  2. Was the data being altered to cover up poor work in the lab, or was data being altered in order to provide desired results?

    1. The context of this is uncertain, but in light of the investigation it’s difficult to connect the dots any other way than manipulating results to achieve a desired outcome.
      “Tell me what you want and I will get it for you. What we do is like magic,” a former USGS official told auditors a former employee linked to the manipulation would say, according to Rep. Westerman.”

  3. This disturbing affair drives home the need to include independent quality control and quality assurance measures in studies that rely on analytical laboratory data. For example, in situations such as this, when investigators collect samples and send them to an analytical chemistry laboratory, they can purchase certified reference materials and include them in the mix as blind samples. Or split a sample and send the splits to different labs for comparison. Otherwise it is very difficult to tell if there is something amiss with the analytical reports, even with close scrutiny of the data. You collect a sample, you send it to the lab, pay them, and they send you back a number. Paying for external quality control measures can be a significant expense and a hassle for studies that are already stretched thin, but that does insure against getting caught unawares by analytical problems. Trust, but verify.

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