Data manipulation at U.S. Geological Survey science lab

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A federal lab has been shuttered after an investigation revealed almost 20 years of data manipulation and scientific misconduct.

The inorganic section of the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Energy Geochemistry Laboratory in Lakewood, Colo. manipulated data on a variety of topics – including many related to the environment – from 1996 to 2014. The manipulation was caught in 2008, but continued another six years.

“It’s astounding that we spend $108 million on manipulated research and then the far-reaching effects that that would have,” Rep. Bruce Westerman said at a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing. “We know how research multiples and affects different parts of our society and our economy and … if you’re working off of flawed data it definitely could be in a bad way.”

The inspector general report [pdf] is very vague about the specific acts of data manipulation and misconduct, which is not surprising since this specific inspector general has herself been accused of “politicized IG investigations, pulling punches in trying to avoid upsetting political appointees.”

From what I can gather, the results from a mass spectrometer, used to identify the chemical make-up of samples, were repeatedly faked by the individuals who operated it. The research “predominantly affected coal and water quality research and related assessments.” It is however unclear whether politics played a part in this misconduct, or whether it was merely incompetence. I suspect the former, especially because the Obama-appointed inspector general went out of her way to avoid describing the misconduct in detail, and because it continued for so long, even after it was first discovered in 2008.


  • Phill O

    Yes, a very sketchy report. For the laboratory to be shut down completely, one could assume that the laboratory manager was aware.

    From the look of the instrument, it must have been an HPLC/MS system. That is, the samples are introduced in liquid and separated by a liquid chromatographic column before being introduced into the mass spectrometer where positive identification is made (by its “fingerprint”) and concentration can also be calculated.

    As a new person coming into a laboratory, I uncovered “data manipulation”. You can imagine how popular I was with others in the new group. No one who was doing the “stuff” was left within a couple of years. I retired after about 7 years there.

    There could be many reasons for people to fudge data. Consider the academia problem of publish or perish. The intense pressure has lead some to steal research ideas; throw out data which does not “fit”; make up data; design experiments to give the desired answer; collaborate with or form groups that will push one idea (like Man Made Global Warming) and well, just about anything that will keep the funding coming.

    When the government gets involved say with the climate summits, then things happen like the voting out of main stream politicians as in Britain last night.


  • Edward

    It is beginning to look like data manipulation is becoming common. NOAA is changing historical data, and now the USGS cannot be trusted. This truly is disturbing.

    The congressman is right, that flawed data could be bad, but I do not see any scenarios in which flawed data is good. If an existing problem is not as bad as flawed data tell us, then policymakers, such as the congressman, could make policy that over-reacts and diverts resources that could have been used to solve other problems. If a problem is worse than indicated, then the resources used are insufficient to solve the problem. Flawed data always results in the incorrect application of scarce resources.

    From the article: “Regardless, other scientists became aware and requested that lab work be taken elsewhere. ‘USGS has advised committee staff that because scientists had already begun to distrust this lab so significantly that they began relying upon analysis from other labs,’ Westerman said.”

    It seems, however, that many scientists still value the veracity of their results. This is a good sign for both science and policymakers.

  • Phill O

    I took over clients who did not trust data from the lab in my post. They continued with me after I retired and went on my own, consulting. When data is bad, people somehow notice!

    We had a male cat who constantly went to our neighbors (they had a couple dozen females). My wife neutered him and he still kept going over, but now he was a consultant.

  • Nick P.

    Phill O

    “My wife neutered him”

    I would make every effort to stay on her good side if I were you, and still sleep with one eye open…

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