Feds See No ‘Loss Of Confidence’ In Closing Lab That Manipulated Data For Decades

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An order closing a government lab that manipulated energy data for nearly two decades didn’t represent a “loss of confidence” in federal scientists, according to the issuing official, even though a subsequent memo by another agency executive described in gruesome detail an irretrievably mismanaged and dysfunctional operation.

The stop-work order and a subsequent review was issued after a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) chemist was caught manipulating energy-related data at an agency lab from 2008 to 2014. Another chemist manipulated data at the Colorado facility from 1996 to 2008. (RELATED: Federal Lab’s ‘Extremely Troubling’ Data Manipulation Spurs Hill Probe)

“Lastly, the [program office] would like to convey to the [lab] analysts that these actions are not [emphasis theirs] a reflection of a loss of confidence in them or in their abilities,” the March 2015 stop-work order said.

A copy of the order was obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group through a Freedom of Information Act request. (RELATED: Feds Give Congress Blank Documents To ‘Explain’ Lab Data Manipulation)

It’s unclear why the order’s author – acting coordinator Vito Nuccio – was so confident in the scientists’ abilities, given that the lab’s data was manipulated for nearly its entire existence and that a subsequent memo obtained by TheDCNF revealed deep dysfunction, distrust and dubious work performance across the facility.

Scientific Integrity Officer Alan Thornhill wrote the second memo and sent it to USGS Acting Director Suzette Kimball and Acting Deputy Director Dave Applegate in October 2015. He frequently cited a Scientific Integrity Review Panel (SIRP) report.

“It is my recommendation and the unanimous counsel of the SIRP’s that the [lab] be immediately and permanently shut down,” Thornhill wrote. (RELATED: Federal Lab Forced To Close After ‘Disturbing’ Data Manipulation)

Some of Thornhill’s most egregious findings included:

  • “[P]ervasive scientific dysfunction” was “widely known” among USGS labs since at least 2008
  • “[T]here appears to be no portion of the [lab] in its current state that can be salvaged and ordered to resume work” and the facility faced an “irreparable loss of scientific integrity/reputation”
  • There “is ineffective leadership at all levels within the” lab and management is “dysfunctional and broken”
  • “Management inattentiveness” contributed to the lab’s “sub-standard performance and loss of scientific integrity”
  • Managers allowed “toxic work conditions” involving “offensive language and behavior”
  • “[I]nteractions between personnel … are plagued with mistrust and disrespect” and the “situation deteriorated even further” after the data manipulation was reported
  • There was a “disengagement from standard operating procedures … at all levels since at least 2008”

Additionally, “it was incomprehensible to the SIRP that the line-chemist was hired to work” at the lab “without possessing adequate [Microsoft] Excel data processing skills, which are of elementary importance to an analyst in this position,” Thornhill wrote. The chemist’s Excel skill set was below “freshman college-level.”

The SIRP rejected the chemist’s defense that the “data manipulation was unintentional and a result of his incomprehension of Excel-based macro operations,” Thornhill wrote. (RELATED: Feds Don’t Know Why Lab Analyst Manipulated Energy Data For Years)

“This incident represents a low point in our history of producing world class science,” USGS spokeswoman A.B. Wade told TheDCNF. “Rather than reviewing past inadequacies and management lapses, the USGS is focusing on the future. We are fully committed to moving forward in a positive direction to ensure there is never another scientific integrity incident of this magnitude at any USGS facility.”

Republican congressmen during a December House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing were concerned that the reach and effects of the nearly two decades of official data manipulation are still unclear and that the underlying causes remain uncertain.

Additionally, the chemist who manipulated the data was on USGS payroll for another two years after he was caught and was even awarded a retirement pin, the subcommittee revealed during the hearing.

USGS has repeatedly refused to name the chemist or reveal if he was punished. It’s not clear if he retired with benefits, despite his award.

USGS waited a long time to notify potentially affected parties of the data manipulation in both instances, TheDCNF previously revealed. Kimball agreed in March 2015 to have the program supporting the Colorado lab externally audited, but that hadn’t happened as of August 2016.

The manipulation concerned a variety of energy-related data ranging from uranium deposits to coal reserves.

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