Lawmakers slam ‘disturbing’ firing of agency scientist

By Christa Marshall | 09/22/2016 07:28 AM EDT

“Disturbing.” “Frightening.” “Shocking.”

"Disturbing." "Frightening." "Shocking."

Those were some of the adjectives used by Republican lawmakers yesterday to describe the firing of a Department of Energy radiation biologist in 2014 for allegedly providing answers to Congress that countered the wishes of Department of Energy officials.

Several Democrats countered that the hearing’s focus on intimidation of scientists was "ironic," considering earlier investigations of climate and federal scientists by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.


The DOE biologist, Noelle Metting, testified how she was fired after an office party and before the removal of documents from her office in dumpsters. Metting now works for DOE again after a confidential settlement with the department.

"It is disappointing that DOE’s senior management would attempt to usurp this process and silence a federal researcher to advance political goals — in violation of appropriations law," said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Oversight subcommittee. "This administration’s bullying and intimidation must stop."

Federal law prohibits department officials from blocking communications with Congress, he added. The department sacrificed the low dose radiation research program, which was crucial for research for things such as protecting against dirty nuclear bombs, so there could be more funds for Obama’s priorities on climate change, he said.

"When scientists get fired for speaking honestly about their work, it is clear that politics are negatively impacting the work of Congress," said Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), chairman of House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Energy.

Metting’s firing occurred after an October 2014 briefing with the House Science committee about the low dose radiation program. According to committee staff, DOE wanted to terminate the program and did not want Metting providing favorable answers about its research. Authorizing legislation was being considered at the time.

After the briefing, one official "accused me of advocating and lobbying for the program and of being too enthusiastic about the research results. I was shocked," Metting testified. "My only motivation was to fully and truthfully provide information to Congress about the state of DOE’s low dose program research."

There is a "continuing intimidation of scientists" at DOE, she said.

Lawmakers beamed a series of internal emails in the hearing room sent between various DOE officials suggesting there was a deliberate attempt at the briefing to block Senate legislation on the program.

Metting said that one official, Sharlene Weatherwax, rolled a dumpster into her office after the firing and removed personal possessions, some of which have not been returned. Weatherwax is currently the associate director of science for biological and environmental research at DOE.

But Weatherwax told lawmakers that the briefing was not the only reason for Metting’s firing. Weatherwax did not personally attend the meeting with the congressional committee in 2014.

"The proposal to dismiss Dr. Metting details all of the issues … and those were the issues that were actually reviewed by general counsel and human resources. The procedures were followed," she said.

She did not outline the "other aspects" of Metting’s dismissal, which are not public record, according to DOE. The committee has cited language that the dismissal partly was for "inappropriate workplace communication" (E&E Daily, Sept. 19).

"I don’t believe the federal government inaccurately presented information in this case," said Weatherwax. The department did not interfere with providing scientific information "whatsoever," she said.

The committee should follow up the hearing by taking a look at its "own actions," said ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas).

"It is more than a little ironic that the majority has framed this hearing around protecting federal scientists from intimidation when the majority itself has taken extreme steps to intimidate scientists at NOAA, making unsupported allegations of scientific misconduct against them and even accusing them of altering their climate science research results to promote a political agenda," she said in a submitted statement.

"Those false allegations have tarnished this committee," she said.

Johnson said she had "no doubt" about Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s scientific integrity. Any shortcomings resulting from the incident would be taken to heart and addressed by DOE, she said.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) also said the hearing was "ironic" because the committee’s majority "has engaged in clear intimidation of government scientists that are conducting climate change research."

He cited the committee’s earlier subpoena of NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan surrounding a 2014 climate study (ClimateWire, March 17).

At the same time, Beyer said DOE was overzealous in its removal of Metting and badly mishandled the case. He suggested a potential update to the department’s scientific integrity policy.