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Federal Lab Forced To Close After ‘Disturbing’ Data Manipulation

Nearly two decades and $108 million worth of “disturbing” data manipulation with “serious and far ranging” effects forced a federal lab to close, a congressman revealed Thursday.

The inorganic section of the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Energy Geochemistry Laboratory in Lakewood, Colo. manipulated data on a variety of topics – including many related to the environment – from 1996 to 2014. The manipulation was caught in 2008, but continued another six years.

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“It’s astounding that we spend $108 million on manipulated research and then the far-reaching effects that that would have,” Rep. Bruce Westerman said at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing. “We know how research multiples and affects different parts of our society and our economy and … if you’re working off of flawed data it definitely could be in a bad way.”

“The problems were so severe, in fact, that the USGS has already closed the inorganic lab in question permanently,” the Arkansas Republican said. The lab was terminated in January.

Westerman cited a recent Department of the Interior Inspector General (IG) report that said impacts from the data manipulation “are not yet known but, nevertheless, they will be serious and far ranging. The affected projects represented about $108 million in taxpayer funding from fiscal year 2008 through 2014.”

Westerman also highlighted an interview the IG withheld from its report.

“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 Westerman.

Westerman added that the IG’s interview notes make the context of those quotes unclear.

“Given the lab’s history and that problems had already been identified when this interview was being conducted, such a statement seems potentially significant,” Westerman told Deputy IG Mary Kendall, a witness for the hearing.

“Your office explained that you do not know the context or veracity of this statement and that this issue was not part of the audit,” Westerman told Kendall. (RELATE: Interior Watchdog ‘Politicized’ Investigations, Enviro Nonprofit Claims)

Regardless, other scientists became aware and requested that lab work be taken elsewhere.

“USGS has advised committee staff that because scientists had already begun to distrust this lab so significantly that they began relying upon analysis from other labs,” Westerman said.

It’s unclear what effects the manipulated data will have, though Westerman – who touted his engineering background – noted the importance of research integrity.

“I’m not even sure what the scientific result were used in,” he said. “A lot of the work that people do that’s based on scientific research is so important and if the base research is flawed, then that affects the work that goes out from there.”

The research topics that faced data manipulation – including uranium in the environment, health effects of energy resources, and U.S. coal resources and reserves – was “disturbing,” Westerman said.

Some research papers that used the data had to be recalled, Kendall told the panel, but she was unsure of the extent other studies, such as college dissertations, were affected. She also noted that USG was taking steps to determine such effects.

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