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USDA Research Integrity and Capacity

OIG determined how USDA research agencies fulfilled the USDA mission to produce scientific research products during fiscal years 2017–2019.

Inspection Report: 84801-0001-22
Published: 12/08/2020
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Fast Facts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on sound public policy, scientific evidence, and efficient management. One way USDA accomplishes its mission is through its Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area, which includes the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The agencies of the REE mission area are tasked with conducting and delivering foundational and applied research, delivering timely and relevant data and information, and creating and disseminating knowledge. REE includes 2 of the 13 primary Federal statistical agencies—ERS and NASS—which embrace a common set of professional standards and operational practices to help achieve and safeguard scientific integrity. These agencies collect, analyze, and disseminate information for statistical purposes and are responsible for ensuring the quality, objectivity, and transparency of the statistical information and analysis they provide.

Relevant Laws and Regulations
The America COMPETES Act requires all civilian Federal agencies conducting scientific research to develop and issue an overarching set of principles to ensure the communication and open exchange of data, results, and research conducted by Federal scientists to other agencies, policymakers, and the public. In addition, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a memorandum directing each Federal agency with over $100 million in annual research and development expenditures, which includes USDA, to develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government. This includes any results based on research directly arising from Federal funds that are published in peer-reviewed scholarly publications.

OSTP also issued a scientific integrity memorandum, which provides additional guidance to executive departments and agencies to implement the Administration’s policies on scientific integrity. Consistent with the memorandum’s principles, USDA issued Departmental Regulation (DR) 1074-001, Scientific Integrity, which establishes USDA’s scientific integrity policy. The DR notes that it is USDA’s policy to ensure USDA scientists may communicate their scientific findings (data and results) objectively, without political interference or inappropriate influence. Additionally, it is USDA’s policy that scientific findings and products must not be suppressed or altered for political purposes and must not be subjected to inappropriate influence.

Congressional Interest
On June 24, 2019, a formal request, signed by a member of the House of Representatives, was sent to USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) requesting that “OIG investigate the alleged suppression of climate change science at USDA and USDA’s dissemination of climate change research.” In addition, on June 25, 2019, another formal request, signed by 19 Senators, was sent to USDA’s OIG expressing concerns with: (1) the high vacancy rates at all four REE agencies; (2) the new guidance for publishing outside scientific research and the use of disclaimers by Department employees; and (3) reports that USDA was suppressing studies about the impacts of climate change.

Our objectives were to: (1) determine how USDA research agencies fulfilled the USDA mission to produce scientific research products; (2) determine whether changes in policy and/or processes
impacted the publication of scientific reports, documents, and/or communications during FYs 2017–2019; and (3) analyze the impact of any changes in resources, staff, and staff experience levels on the publication of research results during this period.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) did not identify an instance where any change in policies and/or processes impacted the publication of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) research results during fiscal years (FYs) 2017–2019. However, we were unable to fully evaluate the impacts to USDA-funded research publications because we were unable to identify the complete number of Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area publications. This occurred because REE did not implement a mechanism to develop systems that could either report publications for all REE agencies or accurately identify all publications resulting from
USDA-funded research in any particular subject area. As a result, REE cannot accurately and timely identify or count the number of scientific publications relevant to its stakeholders.

Similarly, OIG could not determine the full impact of the changes in resources, staff, and staff experience levels on the publication of REE research results during FYs 2017–2019 because we were unable to identify publications across all REE agencies. We found that one type of Economic Research Service research publication declined due to staffing losses; however, we could not determine the full impact of this change.

REE agreed with our recommendation, and we reached management decision on the recommendation.