U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) officials refused to fix a major management flaw that allowed data manipulation to plague a federal lab for nearly two decades.
A USGS lab in Lakewood, Colo. never created an adequate system to prevent data manipulation, allowing the systemic problem to persist for 18 out of 19 years in existence, according to records reviewed by The Daily Caller News Foundation (DCNF) Investigative Group.
USGS could have resolved the issue as early as 2008 when the manipulation of data was first observed, a highly critical internal memo obtained by TheDCNF reveals.
“This should have been the laboratory’s first priority,” the October, 2015, memo stated.
Lab data was misrepresented for another six years, until 2014, when it was again flagged. The facility was closed in 2016 following several investigations
Cosmetic in nature, the lab’s closure doesn’t actually solve the issue, since other USGS labs also lack a system that ensures data quality. The manipulated data impacted a variety of energy-related categories, such as the quality of coal reserves and uranium deposits. Affected projects represent $108 million in funding and the effects of the bad data could be “serious and far ranging,” a 2016 inspector general (IG) report said.
A so-called “quality management system” is necessary to ensure “quality standards” and ensure “that issued products are scientifically reliable,” according to a 2015 IG report.
Reviewers were surprised that data quality protocols “took so long to be drawn-up and implemented” given “the previous history of data manipulation,” the October, 2015, memo said. The delay was “yet another serious setback to [the lab’s] already tarnished scientific reputation at both the national and international levels.”
Additionally, a May, 2016, announcement suggested USGS was developing a new quality management system in response to data manipulation. In reality, agency officials made that same promise as early as March, 2015, before the extent and cause of the erroneous data became known.
In fact, USGS had been working on a new system since 2010 — two years after data manipulation was first observed, Acting Director Suzette Kimball wrote in response to the 2015 IG report. But the agency’s work wasn’t enough, the IG found.
“[W]e concluded that [USGS] should replace its current system of controls with an effective and comprehensive quality management system,” the watchdog explained.
USGS blamed part of the delay in implementing a new system on the 2014 discovery of the second data manipulation span, arguing that investigating the issue required “substantial resources and may delay implementation of wider” quality management system goals, Kimball wrote to the IG.
The IG was also concerned that USGS “did not include target dates” for implementing a new system, the report said.
Similarly, agency spokeswoman A.B. Wade refused to tell TheDCNF why taxpayers should feel confident that the new system will be implemented after already facing such long delays.
USGS hired someone to manage data quality, an action which also faced significant delays.
Kimball promised to hire someone in the same 2015 IG report, yet the position wasn’t filled until December 2016.
USGS has delayed numerous efforts at solving data manipulation. Officials waited to notify potentially affected researchers. Kimball also promised in 2015 to have the program supporting the Colorado lab externally audited, but that still hasn’t occurred.