Whistleblower Protections for Government Scientists
According to press reports, President-elect Trump’s transition team sent a questionnaire to the Department of Energy (“DOE”), demanding the names of employees who have attended climate-change-policy conferences or performed research on climate science. Some of the questions are a reasonable effort to garner information about ongoing DOE projects. But many of the questions appear to be a troubling witch hunt designed to enable Trump’s political appointees to retaliate against climate scientists. Such retaliation could include launching retaliatory investigations, making false accusations of research misconduct, placing the scientist under surveillance, changing their job duties or terminating their employment (directly or constructively). This is a sample of the questions:
- Can you provide a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended any Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meetings? Can you provide a list of when those meetings were and any materials distributed at those meetings, EPSA emails associated with those meetings, or materials created by Department employees or contractors in anticipation of or as a result of those meetings?
- Can you provide a list of current professional society memberships of lab staff?
- Can you provide a list of all websites maintained by or contributed to by laboratory staff Labs during work hours for the past three years?
If oil-industry lobbyists plan to suppress scientific research and to convert the DOE into a think tank for the oil industry, then they might be in for a rude awakening. Though a new Administration is entitled to implement its policy agenda, censoring scientific research and retaliating against whistleblowers is prohibited.
Whistleblower Protection Act Prohibits Retaliation for Disclosures About Scientific Integrity
During the Bush II Administration, a White House political operative, who had previously worked as a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, removed or altered descriptions of climate research in reports about climate science. Rick Piltz, a courageous whistleblower at the National Coordination Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, publicly opposed the censorship and resigned in protest. Piltz’s congressional testimony and press reports about politically driven censorship of climate-science research spurred Congress to protect whistleblowers who oppose scientific censorship.
In particular, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (“WPEA”) prohibits retaliation against government scientists who challenge censorship or make disclosures related to the integrity of the scientific process. “Censorship” is broadly defined to include “any effort to distort, misrepresent, or suppress research, analysis, or technical information.” The WPEA protects a disclosure of information that an employee reasonably believes is evidence of censorship related to research, analysis, or technical information that is, or will cause, gross government waste or mismanagement, an abuse of authority, a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety, or any violation of law.
The legislative history of the WPEA explains the purpose of protecting disclosures about censorship of scientific research:
The Committee has heard concerns that federal employees may be discouraged from, or retaliated against for, disclosing evidence of unlawful or otherwise improper censorship of research, analysis, and other technical information related to scientific research. . . . It is essential that Congress and the public receive accurate data and findings from federal researchers and analysts to inform lawmaking and other public policy decisions.
The WPA and the agencies that investigate whistleblower disclosures and protect whistleblowers from retaliation, including the Office of Special Counsel (“OSC”), Offices of Inspectors General (“OIGs”), and the Merit Systems Protection Board (“MSPB”), will be a critical bulwark for scientific integrity.
Guide to Whistleblower Protection Act
Whistleblower attorneys Eric Bachman and Jason Zuckerman, former senior officials at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, have released a guide for federal employee whistleblowers titled The Whistleblower Protection Act: Empowering Federal Employees to Root Out Waste, Fraud and Abuse and is available for download by clicking here.
Experienced Washington DC Whistleblower Protection Act Lawyers
Zuckerman Law has represented whistleblowers before the Office of Special Counsel, Offices of Inspectors General, and Congressional oversight committees. The firm is uniquely qualified to represent whistleblowers in the federal government because two of the firm’s attorneys served in senior roles at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
- Eric Bachman served as Deputy Special Counsel, Litigation and Legal Affairs, OSC, where he spearheaded an initiative to combat whistleblower retaliation at the Department of Veterans Affairs. During Bachman’s tenure at OSC, the number of favorable actions for whistleblowers increased by over 50% agency-wide.
- Jason Zuckerman served as Senior Legal Advisor to the Special Counsel at OSC, where he worked on implementation of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and several high-profile investigations.
The firm has represented whistleblowers testifying before the House Financial Services Committee and vigorously opposed efforts to silence whistleblowers. The whistleblower protection lawyers at Zuckerman Law have also helped federal employees combat unlawful gag provisions in agency policies or agreements.