U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) officials knew about environmental data manipulation for years before they stopped the manipulation or notified scientists who may have used phony information, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found.
A USGS analyst resigned while under investigation for data manipulation from 1996 to 2008, but another analyst continued that distortion until 2014. But agency officials learned data was manipulated as early as 2004 when scientists found “test results did not make sense” and “were not accurate,” according to a Department of the Interior inspector general (IG) audit published 11 years later.
“Our office wasn’t aware of the 2008 incident until we began work on our May 2015 evaluation report,” IG spokeswoman Gillian Carroll told TheDCNF.
Yet USGS allowed the manipulation to continue until 2008, and the agency didn’t post a notice until April 2010. An external audit USGS contracted in 2012 found 29 issues, but 11 remained uncorrected as of June 2014 – six years after the manipulation was caught, the IG reported.
Similarly, USGS employees knew about the second round of data manipulation years before stopping it. Agency officials claimed the analyst in this instance wasn’t maliciously or ideologically trying to affect test outcomes.
“We don’t think this was something where the analyst was trying to get a certain outcome to influence a decision or report,” USGS spokeswoman Anne-Berry Wade told TheDCNF. “They found several steps of analysis where the data had been altered by more than 20 percent,” and there was one instance where it was altered by 50 percent.
Yet a USGS official apparently said “Tell me what you want and I will get it for you. What we do is like magic,” according to the IG’s notes, Arkansas Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman said at a recent congressional hearing, though the quote’s context is unclear.
Regardless, data was manipulated for another six years after the first incident.
“Although management discovered the incident in late 2014, … employees had suspected quality-related problems with the laboratory for many years,” a June 2016 IG report said. Officials “consistently voiced their distrust of the lab” and preferred using “other USGS laboratories or outside commercial laboratories.”
USGS’s southwest regional director told the agency’s chief in a January 2016 memo the lab was closing and that its customers were “being notified that the data was suspect and any publications should be evaluated and possibly retracted,” the IG report said.
No one had been punished for the manipulation when the memo was sent, and USGS didn’t post a public notice on its website until May 2016.
“The scientists were given an initial heads up that there was a potential issue in 2015, but we were still trying to understand the scope of what happened,” USGS Associate Program Coordinator Jon Kolak told TheDCNF.
But the IG reported:
“USGS has taken a long time to inform its many stakeholders about this scientific integrity incident. To date, only the direct lab customers as well as selected scientist collaborators and related journals have been notified.”
“Considering that the incident was discovered in October 2014 and that its serious nature became apparent shortly thereafter, USGS has had ample time to make a public announcement,” the IG continued. “Many organizations … could potentially make decisions or policy based on flawed information.”
USGS is unaware of any affected policy decisions, Wade told TheDCNF, although a United Nations air quality report related to South African boilers was retracted over the data manipulation, the IG revealed.
Neither the IG nor USGS have fully discovered all the scientific projects and publications affected by the distortion, though the issue was caught nearly two years ago.
Meanwhile, the IG knew about the data manipulation as early as May 2015, but didn’t examine it until receiving a referral from USGS months later. Also, the watchdog only conducted an inspection – a significantly less comprehensive and less beneficial assessment than an audit or investigation.
“We wanted to do an inspection because it is a quick turnaround product that allowed us to bring this important issue to the attention of the USGS director as quickly as possible,” Carroll told TheDCNF.
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