USGS finds data fraud, closes environmental chemistry lab

Misconduct has led to delays and 1 retraction in environmental quality measurements reports

By Jessica Morrison (E&CN)

Alleged misconduct and data manipulation at a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) laboratory may have affected thousands of environmental quality measurements processed between 2008 and 2014, according to the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

As many as 24 research projects, representing some $108 million in funding for the laboratory, may have been impacted, OIG said earlier this month. “At least seven reports have been delayed, and to date, one report has been retracted.”

The misconduct, which was discovered by USGS management in 2014, involves analyses performed using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry by the Inorganic Section of the USGS Energy Geochemistry Laboratory in Lakewood, Colo.

“Some data were manipulated both to correct for calibration failures and to improve results of standard reference materials and unknowns” and raw data were not retained, USGS says.

Although USGS notified affected lab customers, some collaborators, and relevant journals about the misconduct investigation, OIG faulted the agency for taking too long to issue a public notification.

Full story here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i26/USGS-finds-data-fraud-closes.html

h/t to WUWT reader Robert Croft

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42 thoughts on “USGS finds data fraud, closes environmental chemistry lab

    • What is really concerning is that the director of the park service showed up at a previous hearing and lied through his teeth and at least one member of the committee has sent a letter to Obama demanding his resignation.

      This hearing invited numerous DOI employees, only 1 token forest service representative showed up, the DOJ was invited, they didn’t show up (this is at least the 3rd refusal), the only party that consistently shows is the inspector general.

      These hearings normally have several panels of witnesses. Two token witnesses is really unusual.

    • From the actual report:
      “ OIG found that former BLM Director Robert Abbey was personally and substantially involved in the presale process for a parcel of 480 acres of BLM land near Henderson, Nevada to developer Christopher Milam. Abbey stood to benefit personally from the sale because he and former BLM employee Mike Ford had arranged for Abbey to resume his role in their private consulting firm once he left the employment of BLM. Their consulting firm represented Mr. Milam and it was to receive $528,000 if the sale was completed. In addition, the OIG found that regulations against preferential treatment and improper use of non-public information regarding the sale had been violated. While DOJ had been involved in the investigation, two U.S. Attorney districts ultimately declined to prosecute this case.7”

      So Abbey gets to keep his half-mil dollar bribe for orchestrating the preferential sale. Who controls the DoJ? (Yeah, I know). Our government is as corrupt as it possibly can be. I will no longer vote for any incumbent. I may end up helping elect another crook, but at least it will be a different crook, and our wealth will be redistributed to other crooked groups. Our existing hogs have been at the trough long enough.

      • He was appointed in 2009 by the sitting president.

        But this is typical Obama. One of his first acts was to drop the voter intimidation case against the New Black Panthers – a case considered a slam-dunk by the Bush DOJ.

      • Sale didnt go through
        ‘”he Interior Department eventually terminated the land sale because of questions over the agreement between the city and Milam, according to the report. Milam’s lenders then sued the government for backing out of the deal.
        The investigation was conducted jointly with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the report said, and the findings were turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nevada, which declined prosecution.”

    • My God Jeff, you can’t do that. If the data was retained and made freely available you would be doing science. We can’t have that now can we?

      • Don’t forget to keep and maintain the data collection methodology, particularly if anything new/unique was used, and any computer source code used in data analysis!

    • No you can’t have their data because every clisci team member would have to worry about you finding something wrong with their data, methods and/or conclusions.

    • If the data is not maintained, the individuals involved in the loss should be fired and not allowed to work in the field again, and all studies related to or referencing the data immediately retracted as front page news. Editors using such data should have their journals censured and then shut down if if continues. This should never be allowed to pay off for anyone. A serious consequence is the only thing that will cut into the problem. (I’m not holding my breath on this, of course. Just saying this is the proper way to stop the fraud.)

      • Here’s a perspective on data destruction from my many years of collecting, analyzing, and maintaining data in both industry and academia. Acquiring and managing data takes a lot of effort. People would never destroy data unless: (A) it was totally worthless; or (B) it was necessary to protect someone important from prosecution. In either case those involved would would still feel very bad about it. In the latter it would only be done by someone with very deficient ethics.

        Here’s an example. In the 1990s I interviewed a large mortgage company about a consulting position. The company had accumulated large amounts of information from the borrowers they had financed. However they chose to save money by reusing the data tapes for other information at their data center. Somewhat later, the company had decided to diversify and realized that the former information could be useful for marketing other financial products.

        The person I talked to wanted to know if the destroyed data could be at least partially reconstructed by geocoding the addresses and connecting them with census and possibly other data. Being quite familiar with geocoding, available data and costs, and the variability of consumer behavior, I explained that the resulting information might not even be worth the expense of generating it–in sharp contrast to the value of the far better and much more specific data they had trashed to save around $25 per reel of magnetic tape years before.

      • Here’s a perspective on data destruction from my many years of collecting, analyzing, and maintaining data in both industry and academia.

        Multiple decades building Product Lifecycle Management data, I frequently have to explain that infilling attribute information to add historical clarity is worse that blanks, because if its blank the end users know it’s junk, and if they want to use it, can at least do their due diligence, if it’s filled in they are likely to think it’s correct.

    • Unfortunately, there is a LOT of data that has been gathered over the years by Federal laboratories that hase been effectively lost, by being archived in paper form. There were many experiments that were performed in nuclear engineering back in the day when such things were permitted, and the national laboratories that performed them eventually stopped maintaining the data. It was boxed up and shipped off to a Federal data repository because the labs did not have the funding to maintain it in an easily retrievable form. It is not quite “destroyed” – just lost in an enormous cave. Some may be on tapes or other digital media that is no longer readable.

      When the data WAS available, the labs would charge government agencies a fee to retrieve it – sometimes selling it to one agency at a higher price than it cost a different agency to originally generate it!

  1. I have some very prime South Florida land for real estate home development for those who believe that the Obama Administration would not manipulate data (environmental, economic, military poltical) to advance a preferred narrative.

    The only “truth” of the Obama Administration is that everything it puts forth to the public must be first considered a lie until proven otherwise.

    Some of his lies:
    Most Accountable admin ever –> opposite.
    Lower healthcare costs under ACA -> much higher premiums and deductibles.
    Not a smidgen of evidence of IRS corruption –> boatloads of corruption and still on-going.
    Benghazi attacks were YouTube video inspired – -> big lie, it was 911 and terrorism.
    ISIS is JV –> ISIS is terrorizing Europe, & San Bernadino and Orlando. Likely More ro come.

    Anyone who believes the words that come out of Barack Obama’s mouth is a fool or simply dishonest themself.

    • This data manipulation apparently goes all the way back to 1996 – at lest three Administrations.

    • [The only “truth” of the Obama Administration is that everything it puts forth to the public must be first considered a lie until proven otherwise.]

      Actually, that is true for every administration going back eons–just substitute USG for obama administration, and it becomes an accurate statement.

    • “Anyone who believes the words that come out of Barack Obama’s mouth is a fool or simply dishonest themself.”

      That’s just dishonest propaganda. Every word spoken my every member of the administration is not Obama speaking. Besides, the Obama administration is certainly no more dishonest than its predecessor. In fact, it would be tough to find any administration since our founding that doesn’t have its lies and liars. The only thing about this site worthwhile is the science. The political spin and conspiracy theories are a joke.

  2. I would like to blame this problem on the Obama administration but it is more a problem of activist scientists with their own agenda in government and NGO’s who will do anything to advance their goals.

  3. The quote in the Daily Caller is:

    “Tell me what you want and I will get it for you. What we do is like magic,”

    http://dailycaller.com/2016/06/23/federal-lab-forced-to-close-after-disturbing-data-manipulation

    Hmm. And how many global temperature datasets have been saying something very similar….? So much for the claims that such conspiracies involving tens or hundreds of people cannot exist, because they would be discovered too easily. Quite obviously they can evolve, exist, and remain for some considerable time.

    R

    • “Hmm. And how many global temperature datasets have been saying something very similar….? So much for the claims that such conspiracies involving tens or hundreds of people cannot exist, because they would be discovered too easily. Quite obviously they can evolve, exist, and remain for some considerable time.”

      Global temperature datasets dont “say” anything.

      If you want the raw data there are multiple sources:

      1. You can go to each individual country and request their data.
      2. You can go to GHCN Daily– many countries supply their data to NOAA
      3. You can go to GSOD and FSOD, again, many countries supply their hourly data to these collections.
      4. In many cases you can go back to paper forms or micro fiche or old mag tapes

      The bottom line: If you look at all the raw on line and use only raw data to compute ECS

      You will find…

      ECS is HIGHER with the raw data..

      Its sad that WUWT will use any means possible to insinuate that their opponents are criminal

      • It seems to me that the term “raw data” has a totally different meaning in the world of climate “science” to what it has in practically every other discipline known to man – with the possible exception of certain strands of psychology.

      • The bottom line: If you look at all the raw on line and use only raw data to compute ECS

        You will find…

        ECS is HIGHER with the raw data..

        Its sad that WUWT will use any means possible to insinuate that their opponents are criminal

        That depends how you calculate climate sensitivity to forcing, as well as we all know you can make the results sing and dance if you want.
        The gsod data shows that CS for most of the planet is no more than 5 or 6 thousands of a degree F per Watt, and near the poles just under 2 hundredths of a degree F. So unless a co2 watt is different than a solar watt, 3.7W is no more than an additional 0.081F.

        https://micro6500blog.wordpress.com/2016/05/18/measuring-surface-climate-sensitivity/

        And I just got my atm delta enthalpy calculation running, a lot of energy has to be lost to space every night for the air to cool.

      • Mosh –

        Its sad that WUWT will use any means possible to insinuate that their opponents are criminal

        I assume you mean some people at WUWT, not WUWT. Who are the opponents of WUWT? (There may be some – hotwhoxxer, wottsupwxxhthat, dexxog – are their bots here?) I see lots of different views and opinions here including yours. I actually appreciate your comments particularly when they actually have references or opinions rather than the short drive by’s you sometimes leave. I may not agree with you. I certainly don’t have the mathematical or computational skills to analyze much as you have done, but I value your opinions since they tell me much about how/what you think. I suspect I think very differently and I was most certainly trained differently. I can, however download data from various sources and see what they tell me – adjusted or not. I see nothing alarming but maybe I am too laid back watching the wolves, elk, deer, bear, cougars, moose, etc from the deck of my house. Life seems pretty good to me.

        The following isn’t an appropriate analogy as you are not my enemy nor my friend but you will understand what I mean:

        “Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer.”

        I listen to my leftist friends and our leftist media so I can try to understand them. I listen to dissenting views and views different from mine as I know I am biased. My opinions can change if the preponderance of facts/information change. Though I never change a position if my internal warning system says wait till the data is conclusive.

        I doubt there will be conclusive evidence on the causes of perturbations in climate in my life time – well ok – Volcanoes, ENSO, PDO, an asteroid hit – we can maybe figure that out, but the 23,000 year and 100,000 year variations and the stuff in between like the little Ice Age – maybe in a thousand more years. Maybe.

        CO2. Pfft. A wealth distribution scheme. I can accept that. Just look about. It has already happened.

        But that is just an opinion.

        I do appreciate your comments and if you get a little bit of smack from some people, well, that is the price of making a public statement. Some people react to you with vitriol but I suspect that is not necessarily related to a particular comment but some history with some folks.

        But you keep coming back and kudos to you for doing so.

        Time to go grease my tractor. Have a nice day.

      • “If you want the raw data there are multiple sources. So much for the claims that such conspiracies involving tens or hundreds of people cannot exist”

        :Everett F Sargent July 2, 2014 at 2:47 PM Moyhu blog
        Nick,”Along with “estimated” data for a bunch of closed/zombie weather stations that shouldn’t be reporting at all, and have no data in the raw data file.” Here’s a little back story for you.
        I have three degrees in civil engineering, the 1st one was a two year at Vermont Technical College in May 1975 (then UVM then Cornell).That summer of 1975, I was lucky enough to work for the USACE CRREL in Hanover, NH as a GS-3.
        My job, along with several others, was to update the CONUS snow load contour map, using all available historic raw monthly snow accumulation data.
        This was all from stacks and stacks of computer printouts.
        When a station was missing data, we INFILLED it using a simple three point average from the closest three adjacent stations (that formed a triangular enclosure for the missing data).
        I can’t remember if we did any massive multiyear infilling though (Is that a requirement for the v2.5 USHCN to work?).
        But at some point, contour maps are constructed from the final homogenized climatology either as anomalies and/or absolutes. Correct?
        We never used those estimates to calculate any other missing data, all interpolation was from original raw data only.
        Long story short? Infilling station data has been around a very long time, at least 40 years.

        So it is not all raw then?

    • Steven,

      In this instance I believe the issue is non-transparency, not what raw verses refined data tells us.

      I tend to stay out of the latter argument. One – it isn’t an area I think I am knowledgeable enough to comment on ; two – based on what I do think I understand, there are problems using either method and that refinement of data is a common practice and completely acceptable so long as the chain of decisions is transparent. That way, if someone disagrees with how you went about it, they can run their own analysis using a different decision chain.

      But then, isn’t that last bit what you’ve been telling people to do?

      • they can run their own analysis using a different decision chain.
        But then, isn’t that last bit what you’ve been telling people to do?

        What he isn’t mentioning is that if you do use a different decision chain, he will promptly issue a proclamation that it is wrong.

  4. “Some data were manipulated both to correct for calibration failures and to improve results of standard reference materials and unknowns” and raw data were not retained, USGS says.

    hmm?
    so seeing as the original data WAS paid for BY a govt dept funding
    isnt destruction of that a crime and open to legal repercussions on those who destroyed govt property?

    • I don’t know, but if I tried that sort of nonsense, I could expect fines or arrests. Since they work for the government, it took 8 years to even shut them down after the problems came to light.

  5. I was going to say that this is a good justification for double blind trials and testing.

    If the scientist did not know where the samples cam from they would have little reason to fiddle the results.

    However, activist scientist will leave no stone unturned to get the ‘right’ result.

    • It doesn’t surprise me at all that manipulated results have been produced systematically since 1996. In ‘the age of Enron’ anything was acceptable provided someone made money from it, advanced their narrow agenda, or promoted ‘Hell-Fire as light’.

      This goes beyond noble cause corruption. Once getting the ‘right’ answer has been accepted as the norm, this is followed by getting ‘any’ answer. That is the Enronisation of science: conspiracy to produce any result deemed ‘necessary’ to support some or other scam for power or money.

      The goal to Hell is paved with pamphlets advertising how bright it is and how clearly you can see everything once you get there. My inspiration is a quote seen this morning:

      “They hasten forward to Hell Fire, and mistake it for light.” “Well-meaning leaders of nations and people of goodwill are left struggling to repair the fractures evident in society and powerless to prevent their spread. The effects of all this are not only to be seen in outright conflict or a collapse in order. In the distrust that pits neighbour against neighbour and severs family ties, in the antagonism of so much of what passes for social discourse, in the casualness with which appeals to ignoble human motivations are used to win power and pile up riches—in all these lie unmistakable signs that the moral force which sustains society has become gravely depleted.”

      One lab down, how many more to go? Temperatures, anyone? We serve your ‘needs’…

  6. Surely this is fraud? If someone pays for something (in this case your government paying for information), then if this information is deliberately made erroneous then an act of fraud has been committed. I would guess that identifying and prosecuting the individual perpetrators would be next to impossible.

  7. For years I have been reading stories about labs that really messed up. It’s not uncommon.

    A great example is the “Ontario Centre of Forensic Sciences”. These folks would send someone to jail for life before they would admit that they had contaminated a sample. link The case involved red fibers supposedly found in a suspect’s car. The lab technician wore a red sweater and refused to wear a lab coat. It’s almost certain that the sample was contaminated.

    And as the Morin Commission found, it would suppress exculpatory results of Crown evidence testing when it suited the prosecutors, and the defense would never know of it.

    People trust lab results way too much. In most cases, the only quality assurance is the lab’s word that it did the job right.

  8. Robert Croft, you beat me to the punch on this story.

    As a camper, hiker, and fisherman, I’ve been a long time consumer of products of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Many have come to depend on the accuracy of the maps produced by this organization. One of my favorite pastimes is to browse the map room at the USGS facility just outside of Denver, Colorado in the Federal Center in Lakewood, Colorado.

    More than once I’ve puzzled out a navigation question on hikes in the high country using a geodetic map published by the USGS. I’ve always been amazed at the accuracy of these maps as I traversed mountain valleys in search of fishing spots and camp sites.
    Other users of USGS data products have learned the USGS has failed to produce accurate information for their applications. Apparently a government scientist at the Lakewood offices, specifically the USGS Energy Geochemistry Laboratory, has deliberately falsified the results of mass spectrographic testing for many years.

    I thought myself somewhat immune to surprise at government malfeasance, given the stories of data manipulation of the temperature records at other government agencies, illegal mail servers, etc. But I was genuinely shocked to hear of what was going in my own backyard.

    A mistake on a map might result in my missing a fishing hole. In this case, we know at least $108 million in funding, with many hours of research time, has been wasted.

    I’m skeptical of government data, but apparently not skeptical enough.

    • I’ve always been amazed at the accuracy of these maps as I traversed mountain valleys in search of fishing spots and camp sites.

      There’s a big difference between surveyors and scientists. Surveyors know that their work will eventually be checked. ie. other surveyors will use their work. Scientists and lab technicians in testing labs know that their work probably won’t be checked.

      Surveyors are often professional engineers. Like all engineers, they have to take an ethics course. Scientists don’t.

    • They aren’t PEs, technically. They have a separate surveyor license.
      http://ncees.org/

      The biggest thing isn’t the ethics course. It’s that they have a license, someone who gave them that license and the ability to take it away. Both engineers and surveyors also work for someone, so they are accountable to authorities and have a vested interest in being correct, as wrong results can be disastrous in the long run. You may lose clients to an unfavorable assessment, but careers and lives are lost by any error, much less malfeasance.

      On the other hand, most research scientists who work for universities are effectively independent persons. They get grants for research. Those grants are often not contingent on being right, but are often clearly biased on getting the “right” answer. After all, if you find your field of study has no basis, is invalid, or your years of work produces a cure with only trivial effects on health, you are out of a job. You have to really screw up in order to lose tenure or grants that have been given, and I’ve never heard of someone having their doctorate revoked, even in cases of outright fraud. Even if censure occurs, they still own the books they published, and public shame would probably increase sales and royalties.

      You just don’t have the incentives to get things right in the pure sciences that you do in the applied.

      • … but careers and lives are lost by any error …

        Amen. A classic case is the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. link

        Investigators concluded that the basic problem was a lack of proper communication between Jack D. Gillum and Associates and Havens Steel. … the engineer they spoke with simply approved the changes over the phone, without viewing any sketches or performing calculations.

  9. Modern digital mass spectrometers acquire a huge amount of raw data and immediately convert it internally into processed data for every scan. The raw data is routinely dumped for lack of digital storage capacity.
    What is not appreciated by modern chemists is that these instruments are still susceptible to the vagaries of their analog ancestors, such as corroded internals, slow leaks, matrix effects, alignment problems, aging electronics, procedural errors, bad calibration standards, etc., which cannot be recognized nor corrected without the actions of an experienced operator who understands the physics, chemistry, and electronics involved.
    The first line of defense for the experienced operator is analytical protocols, which are all too often shorted by inexperienced operators in a hurry.

    • I don’t know about you, but the raw data involved is why each of my stack test reports, which can be summarized in a single page, goes for over one hundred pages. There are pages upon pages of blanks and spans with mandatory calibrations just to prove that none of these factors have contaminated the data.

      Of course, the EPA never hold themselves up to their own standards.

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