Top Federal Scientific Integrity Official Left Post Days Before Data Manipulation Report

US Geological Survey denies that official’s departure had anything to do with highly critical IG report

Alan Thornhill
Alan Thornhill / LinkedIn
June 27, 2016

The top scientific integrity official at a federal agency that informs U.S. energy policy quietly departed this month, and the agency says that has nothing to do with a government report released around the same time that detailed widespread scientific misconduct at an agency lab.

Dr. Alan Thornhill left his post as the director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s office of scientific quality and integrity (OSQI) a few weeks ago. He took over as director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s western ecology division on June 12, according to his Facebook page.

That was just three days before the Interior Department’s inspector general, which oversees USGS, released a report that criticized the scientific integrity of work at one of the agency’s labs.

Asked whether the Thornhill’s departure had anything to do with the report or the practices identified therein, the agency was adamant that there was no connection. "Unequivocally not. None whatsoever," spokeswoman Anne Berry Wade told the Washington Free Beacon on Monday.

The OSQI "monitors and enhances" the quality of scientific work conducted by USGS, according to its website. It oversees and makes recommendations regarding the scientific processes used to gather agency data.

Thornhill is a former chief environmental officer for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and has also worked for the Nature Conservancy, an environmentalist group.

He did not immediately respond to questions about his departure from USGS.

The inspector general’s report detailed mass data manipulation by an employee at USGS’s energy geochemistry laboratory in Lakewood, Colo. The lab provides scientific data on energy resources that informs federal and state legislation and regulation, as well as activities by customers in the private sector and academia.

The data manipulation was discovered by USGS itself, and OSQI initiated an internal investigation beginning in 2014. "Data produced by the Inorganic Section were intentionally manipulated by the line-chemist in charge," OSQI’s report found.

According to information posted online by USGS ahead of the IG report’s release, hundreds of data samples were affected. The agency has since closed the lab due to the issues discovered there.

Much of the affected work concerned fossil fuel production, including 80 tests regarding coal quality and the byproducts associated with burning it. Additional tests examined water quality and shale rock, from which oil and gas companies are increasingly extracting resources.

The IG identified "twenty-four research and assessment projects that have national and global interest were potentially affected by erroneous information." But the impact of the misconduct goes far beyond the specific projects affected, according to the report.

"The scientific misconduct and data manipulation at the lab … impacted USGS organizational integrity in ways that are still unfolding and challenging to quantify," the IG wrote. It "potentially undermines the Bureau as a trusted scientific organization."

The energy geochemistry lab serviced private and government clients, including, according to the IG, USGS itself, other federal agencies, congressional offices, state regulators, foreign governments, news media, environmental groups, and universities.

Wade said that most of the "stakeholders" that had reported being affected by the data manipulation were USGS scientists. The IG interviewed 16 stakeholders, and reported widespread dissatisfaction with the lab.

"Nearly all of [them] expressed disappointment, anger, and/or distrust of the lab," the report noted. "Many stated in very strong terms they would not use the lab if it reopened."

Wade stressed that USGS had discovered the data manipulation itself, proactively addressed the issues identified by the IG, and took corrective action beyond what was recommended in the report.