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Protecting Scientist Whistleblowers

Whistleblower Protections for Federal Employees
Federal employees who expose lax oversight of drugs at the Food and Drug Administration, cozy relationships between FAA inspectors and certain airlines, hundreds of billions of dollars in knowing "underestimates" for the cost of prescription drug coverage, and billions of dollars wasted in no-bid defense contracts are critical to protecting public health, safety, fiscal accountability, and the foundations of our democracy.

The Problem
When a federal employee steps forward to protect the public from harm, that worker is often harassed, demoted or fired. Over the years, court decisions have eroded whistleblower protection laws, rendering them largely ineffective. Furthermore, the ability of employees to report waste, fraud, and abuse depends greatly on Executive Branch leadership.

The situation is even worse for federal scientists because whistleblower protection laws have not specifically addressed situations where federal scientists expose attempts to distort or suppress federal research or technical information.

Federal employees should not have to choose between their integrity and their jobs.  For the good of the American public, Congress must act to provide federal workers with these strong, comprehensive whistleblower protections they deserve. 

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act
The Senate’s unanimous approval of comprehensive bipartisan whistleblower legislation comes after a decade-long effort to protect the federal employees who risk their careers to protect the rest of us. UCS urges the House to quickly pass the bill to make it law this year so we don’t need to begin the process all over again in January.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S. 372) makes significant progress in giving millions of federal workers the rights they need to fully serve the public interest. It restores best practice free speech rights by overturning years of flawed judicial and administrative decisions that had left current whistleblower law in tatters and federal workers unprotected.

More Information
Of the nearly 5,100 federal scientists working across ten federal agencies who responded to UCS questionnaires in recent years, more than 1,900 federal scientists said they feared retaliation for discussing their agencies' mission-driven work.

Their fears are warranted. Consider these emblematic anecdotes:

  • In 2006, Rosemary Johann-Liang, a high-ranking Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist, recommended that the label for the diabetes drug Avandia include a strong warning that the drug could cause heart problems. She was reprimanded by FDA managers, who transferred the Avandia safety review supervisor job to her boss. Johann-Liang was vindicated in May 2007, when the New England Journal of Medicine raised similar concerns about Avandia, and the FDA finally requested the warning label. Johann-Liang, however, ended up leaving the agency.
  • In 2001, Mike Kelly, a biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, developed a plan to lessen the impacts from a Klamath River irrigation project to the endangered Coho Salmon. His plan was significantly weakened after going through an unprecedented, and according to Kelly, illegal review process. "I never suspected that I would be asked to support the conclusion that 1 + 1 = 3, but I was," Kelly wrote. Kelly filed a complaint under the Whistleblower Protection Act but the case was not heard because the administrative court considered it just a case of "conflicting science." After his efforts to protect the Coho salmon were thwarted and suppressed, Kelly asked to be dismissed from the project and eventually left the agency.
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