At Government Accountability Project, we believe that truth deserves a champion. That is why, for more than 40 years, we have assisted over 8,000 whistleblowers, some of the most impactful being science professionals.
Employees in diverse fields in both the public and private sector have exercised their integrity, and their voices, by raising the alarm about issues ranging from censorship of climate science data to environmental dangers at nuclear facilities to unsafe pharmaceuticals and food that harm consumers to the medical and mental health harm suffered by children in immigration detention. These ethical heroeswhistleblowersare essential to preventing harm, driving evidence-based policy making, and promoting accountability
For decades, federal employees and contractors with the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies charged with protecting the public, workers, consumers and the environment have leveraged the power of their scientific expertise and access to information to expose illegality, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, gross mismanagement, and serious and substantial dangers to public health and safety. Just some compelling examples of past Government Accountability Project clients include:
- Larry Criscione, an engineer and risk analyst with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), became increasingly alarmed that the Oconee nuclear power plant in South Carolina was at risk of flooding and undergoing a meltdown similar to the disaster at Fukushima. When his warnings went unheeded, he blew the whistle by reporting to Congress in 2012 that the NRC was failing to act on evidence that Oconee and nearly a quarter of the nation’s nuclear plants could not withstand an upstream dam break, a risk that escalates as climate change exacerbates the threat of flooding. Crisciones disclosures have drawn public attention to the urgent need to prevent a flood-related nuclear disaster.
- Rick Piltz served as a senior associate in the Coordination Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). He witnessed a high-level official in the George W. Bush White House editing scientific reports on climate change so as to exaggerate scientific uncertainty and thwart justification for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Piltz blew the whistle in 2005 by sharing evidence of the edited reports with The New York Times; the front-page story prompted the resignation of the offending official, a former oil lobbyist.
- David Graham, a Food and Drug Administration safety researcher, demonstrated that the painkiller medication Vioxx had caused over 40,000 fatal heart attacks. Graham testified before Congress in 2004 after the FDA attempted to suppress his findings. His disclosures forced Merck to recall Vioxx and pull it off the shelves, saving countless lives.
- Susan Wood served as Food and Drug Administration Assistant Commissioner for Womens Health for five years. When she concluded in 2005 that political interference from the George W. Bush administration was tying up the approval of Plan-B, not the safety or efficacy of this morning-after pill which was supported by strong data, she resigned in protest and spoke out forcefully against the fact that FDA science was being held captive by the anti-abortion movement. The political battle continued to be waged until 2013, when a court mandated that the emergency contraception be made available over-the-counter without age restrictions.
Employees willing to blow the whistle on wrongdoing they witness in the workplace perform an invaluable public service to all of us, but science whistleblowers are uniquely important. From the disaster of climate change to deaths from unsafe prescription drugs to nuclear explosions to lead exposure in children from unsafe tap water to poorly maintained aircraft, the consequences of misconduct can be far-reaching and severe. Thus the information provided by whistleblowers is crucial for preventing harm, catalyzing oversight and prompting accountability.
In a political climate hostile to science and transparency, whistleblowers are more important than ever, and this has proven to be so:
- Joel Clement, a biologist who served as a top-level Policy Advisory to the then-Secretary of the Department of Interior Ryan Zinke, after being reassigned from his post after speaking out about the dangerous impacts of climate change on Alaskan Native communities, drew attention to the Administrations efforts to deprioritize climate science by publicly blowing the whistle on this overt censorship and abuse of authority.
- Kevin Chmielewski,who served as the deputy chief of staff for operations under then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, internally challenged (along with others) Pruitts excessive spending and management practices. Chmielewski was put on administrative leave without pay, and subsequently disclosed both the reprisal he suffered as well as his concerns about Pruitts abuses to Congress and the press. Pruitt ultimately resigned in the face of widespread public criticism and at least thirteen federal investigations.
- Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson, who serve as the medical and mental health subject matter expert contractors for the Department of Homeland Securitys Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, brought their concerns to the Inspector General and Congress about systemic weaknesses in care at family detention centers that would result in imminent harm to children with expanded and prolonged detention occurring with the implementation of the Trump administrations zero-tolerance immigration policy. Their disclosures catalyzed significant media coverage, congressional hearings, and challenged DHS efforts to change the law that limits the amount of time children can be held in detention.
Most federal employees and contractors enjoy legally protected rights to blow the whistle free from reprisal. Unfortunately, as seen in most of the examples above, many employees who raise concerns receive retaliation rather than thanks. While reprisal against whistleblowers is not unique to the Trump administration, its hostility to science, and truth itself, is.The risk to employees for speaking out is real. But despite that risk, many employees are more motivated than ever to exercise their scientific and professional integrity because the consequences of staying silent are even more real.
To support and empower employees who witness and feel compelled to expose wrongdoing, Government Accountability Project has developed a new resource entitled Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees and Contractors. This guide offers guidance about the legal rights of employees, particularly those in science-based professions, to blow the whistle, along with practical advice for making disclosures about wrongdoing in the safest and most effective ways possible.
Recognizing that truth, and truth-tellers, need a champion, we hope this resource offers comfort, inspiration and guidance to the future whistleblowers on whose moral courage and professional integrity we all depend on, now, more than ever.
Dana Gold, our Senior Counsel and Director of Education, will be speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting on Saturday, February 16 in a session entitled Scientists as Whistleblowers: Legal Rights, Risks and Options. Copies of Government Accountability Projects new resource, Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees and Contractors, will be available at the conference, and can also be downloaded here.
Government Accountability Project co-authored a report, Protecting Science at Federal Agencies: How Congress Can Help(November 2018) detailing the litany of attacks on federal science under the Trump administration, including reduced communications and efforts to chill whistleblowers.