Whistleblowers, particularly when they belong to the scientific community, are the best alternative to “hold government institutions accountable and to protect the public’s interest.”[i] The U.S. is famous throughout the world for having a robust protection system for those who “blow the whistle” on the government. However, the system could be failing them. Evidence suggests that, for at least a decade, public officials from the scientific community have been experiencing harassment, demotion, or retaliation after they express concerns over government decisions. Below are four stories of scientists who were targets of government retaliation after they exposed waste, fraud, and abuse in its agencies.
Joel Clement was a biologist who served as a top-level policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI). In 2017, Clement spoke out about the dangerous impact of climate change on Alaska Native communities. After that, he was reassigned from his senior position and transferred to a government office that collects royalty payments. Clement blew the whistle, claiming DOI used personnel reassignment to shut down climate change programs, muzzle scientists, and undermine experts. He filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and took the story to the press. Eventually, Clement decided to leave the federal government.
Larry Criscione was an engineer and risk analyst with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In 2012, Criscione reported to Congress that the NRC was deliberately suppressing research that showed 39 nuclear power plants were structurally susceptible to flooding. He was particularly alarmed by the Oconee Nuclear Station located in South Carolina, whose risk of flooding and undergoing a meltdown could have similar outcomes to the disaster at Fukushima, Japan. Since then, NRC paralyzed Criscione’s career, refusing promotion or reassignment. Recently, OSC reached a settlement and concluded the Office of the Inspectors General of the NRC must pay Criscione $15,000 in compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees.
Robert Lanciotti was a virus expert working for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). During the 2016 Zika outbreak, Lanciotti blew the whistle, alleging: 1) CDC was promoting a test far less reliable than another in use across the United States and it was missing nearly 40 percent of Zika infections; 2) that CDC withheld information from the broader public health community about testing differences; and 3) that CDC had a bureaucratic and centralized approach that hamstrung testing for quickly spreading pathogens. After raising these concerns, Lanciotti was demoted in May 2016. Two months later, after he filed a whistleblower retaliation claim in the OSC, he was reinstated to chief of his lab. Nonetheless, after nearly 30 years with the agency, Lanciotti decided to leave CDC in 2018.
The most recent case occurred on April 21, 2020, when Rick Bright, a career expert on vaccine development, was demoted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Bright claims HHS demoted him in retaliation for resisting wide distribution of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to the public as treatment for COVID-19.
All these cases show how whistleblowing might be an act of professional suicide for members of the scientific community. The same could be said for all whistleblowers working in the government, regardless of the community to which they belong. These cases are a call for putting in motion existing tools in the U.S. whistleblower protections system—and also improving it. For starters, it is necessary to reinstate the quorum of the Merit Systems Protection Board, which was mainly created to appeal preliminary decisions issued by the board’s lower-level administrative judges.
Moving forward, there is a need to discuss and approve robust legislation. The Protecting Our Democracy Act might be a good response. Its benefits[ii] are expected to be varied, but two are particularly important: 1) granting a right to whistleblowers to take their retaliation cases to trial with a jury; and 2) explicitly outlawing retaliatory investigations against whistleblowers. This piece of legislation was introduced in the House in September 2020, meaning it will likely be discussed by the new legislature next January. We will see if the newly elected representatives manage to live up to expectations and they vindicate the role of whistleblowers.
[i] For detail see: Government and Accountability Project. Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees (2018)., pp. 2. Available at: http://wordpress-350926-1087337.cloudwaysapps.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/GAP_Federal-Employees-Whistleblower-Guide.pdf
[ii] For detail see: Liz Hempowicz. “Rick Bright’s Resignation Shows We’re Failing Whistleblowers” (October 8, 2020). Available at: https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2020/10/rick-brights-resignation-shows-were-failing-whistleblowers/