EXCLUSIVE: Energy Department Investigated By Congress For Firing Whistleblower

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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The Department of Energy (DOE) is being investigated by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology for allegedly retaliating against a whistleblower who provided Congress with information on a department program.

“After briefing Republican staff of the House Science Committee, a Department of Energy (DOE) employee was apparently fired because of the information they provided,” Texas Republican Rep. [crscore]Lamar Smith[/crscore], chairman of the House science committee, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“It is unlawful for a federal employee to be fired because they answered questions from Congress,” Smith said. “Retaliation against whistleblowers is a serious offense. While the employee has since returned to federal service, concerns remain surrounding the circumstances of their termination.”

In October 2014, an unnamed senior DOE radiation biologist briefed congressional staffers on scientific issues with the department’s Low Dose Radiation Research Program. This program was created to study the effects of very small amounts of radiation on biological tissue. The briefing lasted for several hours, and the scientists talked to staffers about the status of the program, scientific uncertainty in their research, and even upcoming legislation that would impact radiation research.

After the briefing, the program manager’s supervisor, Dr. Todd Anderson, and another DOE official, Dr. Julie Carruthers, accused the scientist of “providing Congress with too much information” and “advocating for the program,” according to a letter sent by Smith to the DOE that was obtained by TheDCNF.

Six days later, the scientist was fired and formally accused of “inappropriate workplace communication” for talking to Congress, according to the letter. The House science committee even suspects DOE may be destroying documents and information about the termination. Congress has formally requested that the DOE preserve records relating to the program manager for use in its investigation.

“The actions by Dr. Anderson and Dr. Carruthers create the appearance that the Department expected the program manager to misrepresent or withhold information from Congress,” Smith wrote to the DOE.

Smith argues the DOE broke the law by firing the scientist who spoke to Congress. Federal law states “[t]he right of employees, individually or collectively, to petition Congress or a Member of Congress, or to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied.”

Interestingly enough, Low Dose Radiation Research Program’s website has a data sharing policy through which scientists are “encouraged to communicate with the wider community of concerned persons, so that current thinking and public debate incorporate sound science.” Most of the program’s research is publicly available online.

 The radiation program studies the effects of small amounts of radiation on biological tissue. Roughly 40 percent of the program’s funds help support academic research projects with the rest supporting academic research at the three DOE National Laboratories. The research is used to analyze acceptable radiation doses during medical diagnostic procedures. It also has applications for industrial work near radioactive sources or potential doses received from a terrorist’s dirty bomb.

In the event of a dirty bomb, the knowledge gained from the research would be useful for evacuation planning and related decisions such as determining where and when it would be safe for people to return.

At that time of the briefing, the science committee was considering voting on a bill which would have required the National Academies of Sciences to create a report about this type of scientific knowledge.

A DOE spokesman acknowledged receiving the letter and said it was currently under review.

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