Scientist Accuses Obama’s Interior Department of Misconduct

August 14, 2012 | By | Add a Comment


A scientist hired to oversee scientific integrity at the Department of Interior says he was canned earlier this year for flagging concerns about one of the agency’s studies. Dr. Paul Houser, a hydrologist, has accused the DOI of “scientific and scholarly misconduct and reprisal,” a complaint currently under investigation within the agency.

The Bureau of Reclamation, a division of DOI, hired Houser in April 2011 to serve as a scientific integrity officer and science advisor. This position is a relatively new one at DOI, put in place in February 2011 in response to President Obama’s 2009 executive order requiring an administration-wide policy that would guarantee that all agency decisions are based on “the soundest science.”

A hydrologist by training, Houser previously worked as an associate professor in the Geography and Geoinformation Sciences Department at George Mason University. He says his trouble at the bureau began in September 2011 when he was asked to review a draft release summarizing the science on dam removal along the Klamath River, which flows through Oregon and California. The proposed removal of these hydroelectric dams is intended to restore the imperiled Chinook salmon population, and has been a subject of much debate for years.

Houser says he believed the DOI’s announcement on dam research focused only on the positive impact of removing the dams, and did not include some potential negative effects. “I had visited Klamath, talked to scientists. They said they hoped there would be improvements in salmon population, but there was no guarantee,” Houser told Mother Jones. “It was a gamble. There was a lot of risk involved.”

When he raised those concerns to then-DOI press secretary Adam  Fetcher, Houser says he was told that he should not write anything about  them in any electronic correspondence. “He wanted a hard copy, no  email,” says Houser, in order to avoid creating any internal  correspondence that could be subject to a Freedom of Information Act  request. (Fetcher is now the deputy national press secretary  for Obama’s reelection campaign.) Houser says his boss, who was out of  the office during the initial exchange, also chastised him for emailing  other scientists working on Klamath regarding the release. “I was told  that the secretary of interior wants to remove the dams, so my actions  weren’t helpful,” says Houser.

His complaint did result in some minor changes to the press release,  but his main concerns about the summary of the science were not  addressed. And almost immediately after the incident, “I was  systematically retaliated against,” he says. His position was changed  from a permanent post to a probationary one. He was given a negative  performance review and told he “wasn’t a team player.” In February 2012,  his job was terminated.

Houser has now filed a scientific integrity complaint  against the agency, accusing his former colleagues of skewing their  presentation of the science in favor of dam removal and of violating the  agency’s policies in its treatment of his concerns and his eventual  dismissal. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog  group that frequently represents government whistleblowers, is  representing Houser in the case.

The DOI has hired a contractor to look into his allegations. Spokesman Blake Androff told Mother Jones that the issue “remains under review.”

The Klamath dam issue has been a hot one for years. In 2010 the parties reached an agreement  to remove four dams along the river, but that plan still needs congressional  approval and a final decision from the DOI, which was delayed earlier this year.

While all agencies were required to institute the new scientific integrity policy under Obama’s executive order, DOI’s arguably drew the most attention after several high-profile controversies over issues like species protections and the manipulation of scientific findings at the agency during the previous administration.

Advocates for transparency and good science within government  agencies point out the apparent irony in firing a guy hired to enforce  scientific integrity for his attempts to do just that. “I have to say,  this doesn’t smell right,” said Francesca T. Grifo, director of the  Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an  environmental group that has been following the implementation of  scientific integrity policy closely. “Interior is struggling to figure  out what this policy means,” she added, and has had difficulty  implementing it. “[That] leaves giant holes that politics can drive  through.”

Houser says he hopes his complaint will impact the policy going  forward. “Hopefully I will make a difference in allowing other  scientists to come forward and be truthful about science,” says Houser.  “If I saw what happened to me, I wouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t bring  forward anything that didn’t support the politics of the department.  That’s not how it should be.”

Filed in: Klamath

Dr. Paul R. Houser

About the Author (Author Profile)

Dr. Houser in an internationally recognized expert in local to global land surface-atmospheric remote sensing, in-situ observation and numerical simulation, development and application of hydrologic data assimilation methods, scientific integrity and policy, and global water and energy cycling. He received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Hydrology and Water Resources from the University of Arizona in 1992 and 1996 respectively. Dr. Houser's previous experience includes internships at the U.S. Geological Survey and at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Houser joined the NASA-GSFC Hydrological Sciences Branch and the Data Assimilation Office (DAO/GMAO) in 1997, served as manager of NASA’s Land Surface Hydrology Program, and served as branch head of the Hydrological Science Branch. In 2005, he joined the George Mason University Climate Dynamics Program and the Geography and Geoinformation Sciences Department as Professor of Global Hydrology, and formed CREW (the Center for Research for Environment and Water). Dr. Houser has also teamed with groundwater development and exploration companies (EarthWater Global and Geovesi) and has served as Science Advisor to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Dr. Houser has led numerous scientific contributions, including the development of Land Data Assimilation Systems (LDAS), the Hydrospheric States Mission (Hydros/SMAP), the Land Information System (LIS), the NASA Energy and Water cycle Study (NEWS), and the Water Cycle Solutions Network (WaterNet).

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