A scientific whistleblower and professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., has settled his personal suit against the Department of Interior (DOI) for the way it fired him after he objected to its hiding of data.
Since 2005, Paul Houser has been employed by Mason as an assistant professor of hydrology, which is the study of Earth’s water as it moves through the air, on the surface and underground.
He works in the Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science, where he started the Center for Research for Energy and Water (CREW). His specialty is combining satellite data, on-the-ground observations, and high-tech computer methods to create models that can accurately predict water and energy cycles.
Dr. Houser’s bio page reads like the Who’s Who of Hydrology. He’s racked up a string of awards, chaired dozens of scientific committees, headed huge research projects for NASA, and published over 50 journal papers.
Scientific Integrity Officer
Through a quirk of fate, Houser was hired in April 2011 by DOI’s Bureau of Reclamation to help update its scientific integrity policy. In the course of his work there, Houser began to question how data was being reported.
He complained that the organization withheld scientific data that contradicted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s political position.
In 2009, Salazar had announced a plan to demolish four hydroelectric dams and restore 350 miles of the Klamath River bed, which flows through Northern California and Oregon.
The project has been in the works for decades, as environmentalists, Native American tribes, ranchers and farmers squabbled over water rights and the declining population of salmon in the upper reaches of the river.
A rose-colored report
Houser found, while reviewing data collected by scientists, that written summaries in a draft Environmental Impact Statement and a press release did not include the negative impacts the project could have on the environment and local communities, or the uncertainty that the plan would work.
They also overstated the positive outcomes that could be expected from the project.
For instance, data samples of the sediment trapped behind the dams showed that toxic contaminants, such as mercury and arsenic, could cause severe environmental damage as they washed downstream once the dams were removed.
Also, a review by six independent scientists showed that removing the dams would, in a best-case scenario, increase the numbers of spawning Chinook salmon in the upper reaches of the Klamath by only 10 percent or 10,000 fish every year.
Told to avoid emails
When he pointed out these problems, the DOI’s press officer Adam Fetcher (now the Deputy National Press Secretary at Obama for America) told Houser to keep quiet and communicate about his complaints by hardcopy only.
After that, Houser’s supervisor Kira Finkler, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Deputy Commissioner for External and Intergovernmental Affairs, told him directly that “the Secretary wants to remove those dams. “She also warned him not to send electronic emails about his complaints that might become subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Not long after, he was given a poor performance review, downgraded, and lost travel privileges. He was told that he was “not a team player.”
After months of conflict, probation and reprisals, the Bureau fired Houser in Feb. 2012. Immediately, he filed a scientific integrity allegation with the Department of Interior, and claimed protection as a whistleblower.
Houser’s personal complaint about his firing was settled as of Dec. 2012, and the two parties have agreed not to discuss the terms. He is back teaching full-time at the University.
Meanwhile, Houser’s second suit, claiming that the data was manipulated for political reasons remains under investigation. In a statement on his website, Houser says that the final outside panel report on the allegation was delivered last summer but DOI has not yet made it available, though it “may be issued soon.”
DOI might have known it was up against a formidable foe if anyone there had taken the time to read Houser’s website. Long before the DOI incident, Houser was a devotee of scientific integrity. His personal code of ethics states:
“Scientific integrity and performing science that is the public trust is my core value….It is my intention to propose, perform, and report science research and results honestly, accurately, unbiased and with assumptions, uncertainties and risks so as to be in the public trust and reliable for decision making.”
According to the LA Times the dam removal plan, which still must be approved by Congress, is expected to cost taxpayers $1.4 billion. Houser is concerned about spending that much without accomplishing the goal, or even causing harm.
No dog in this fight
He notes on his website that a cornerstone of good science is the Scientific Method, which states that any experimental result should be repeatable by other researchers using the same data and methods.
The ability to repeat experiments requires complete transparency--making all scientific data easily available to the public, especially when taxpayers have footed the bill.
Although he’s been accused of being a “Tea Party plant,” who is just trying to derail President Obama’s environmental agenda, in a rebuttal to one critic, Houser wrote,
“I am also not for or against dam removal, but rather I am an advocate for the best science-informed decision that meets the multi-objectives of obeying the law, protecting the environment and advancing society.”
“The outcomes of dam removal on this scale and in this unique environment have significant risks and uncertainties. A positive outcome is not guaranteed and a tragic outcome is possible. All I am trying to accomplish is to make sure that decision makers are aware of these risks and uncertainties, and account for them in their decision-making process.”