Report: This Government Lab Has Been Faking Data for Years

US Geological Survey spokeswoman Anne-Berry Wade refused to say if anybody has been fired or even punished for misconduct. No criminal prosecutions are expected, either.

By William M Briggs Published on July 14, 2016

A person or persons at the same US Geological Survey Lab in Lakewood, Colorado have been discovered faking scientific results. According to a report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the US Department of Interior, the thimblerigging didn’t happen only once or twice, but in many multiple instances and over a long course of time.

In what appears to be a monumental effort at deception or malfeasance or just plain laziness, between 1996-2008 and again between 2008-2014, somebody or some bodies at the Energy Geochemistry Laboratory purposely gave out wrong results from a mass spectrometer (used to identify the chemical constituents in a sample of material).

The incorrect spectrometer results were used in a wide variety of reports, studies and scientific papers, all of which are now called into question. Among the projects affected: “toxic trace metals analysis of water in the greater Everglades,” “assessment of uranium in the environment in and around Grand Canyon National Park,” “analysis of coal combustion byproducts relating to the nationwide Geochemistry of Solid Fuels project,” and several dozen others.

The OIG report said, “One chemist was principally in charge of operating the mass spectrometer” from 2008 to 2014, but the report didn’t say whether this same individual was also involved in the 1996-2008 incidents. The report indicates the office responsible for the misconduct was staffed by several individuals, but that these others were under the direction of the unnamed chemist.

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.

According to the OIG’s report, the systematic book-cooking was not a surprise to the lab’s other occupants:

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.

USGS spokeswoman Anne-Berry Wade is quoted in the Denver Post explaining why the fraud had gone on so long, especially since the lab was long under suspicion. She says that that “a new lab director took over in 2014 and decided to look into the suspicions.” Wade did not say why the previous director failed to investigate the fraud. She also refused to say if anybody was fired or even punished for any misconduct.

No criminal prosecutions are expected, either. Assistant Inspector General for Investigations Matthew Elliott told The Daily Caller News Foundation, “We conducted a limited scope inspection and, as a result, we had no material that gave us a reason to consult with a U.S. Attorney’s office.”

Whether there was sufficient evidence to contact the Attorney’s Office, The Daily Caller said, “The Department of Justice refused to attend the Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee’s hearings on lawbreaking [Department of Interior] employees and explain why it declines prosecutions so often.” The USGS is one agency under the Department of Interior, and the Subcommittee’s investigations were not limited to the scientific misconduct at the USGS.

Representative Bruce Westerman (R), who serves on that Subcommittee, said the problems uncovered at USGS “were so severe, in fact, that the USGS has already closed the inorganic lab in question permanently.” He said, “The affected projects represented about $108 million in taxpayer funding from fiscal year 2008 through 2014.”

More interestingly, Westerman highlighted a curious interview the IG withheld from its report. Westerman said that “a former employee linked to the manipulation” told the IG, “Tell me what you want and I will get it for you. What we do is like magic.”

In a dramatic understatement, Westernamn said, “Given the lab’s history and that problems had already been identified when this interview was being conducted, such a statement seems potentially significant.”

It is unclear from the OIG’s or from any statements made by USGS whether any other actions will be taken. The sole and rather anemic recommendation by the OIG was that the USGS “Complete the notification to stakeholders of the scientific integrity incident.”

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