DOE execs killed respected science program studying radiation health effects. Fired PM who tried to protect science
Senior Department of Energy executives, several of whom were “Acting” Obama Administration appointees in roles that normally require Senate advice and consent, made decisions that eliminated unique research into the biological effects of low dose radiation in the United States.
Early research results from the program are arguably sufficient to support decisions with globally important economic, medical and environmental implications, but there is enormous opportunity for returns from continuing the effort to understand exactly how living organisms respond over time to various doses and dose rates of ionizing radiation.
Here is a representative statement heard during discussions with leading radiation biology experts about the elimination of the LDRRP.
I was very disappointed to learn of the cancelling of the DOE LD program. The US had once led the world in this type of research, and is now abandoning this important effort. Thankfully Europe is active in this area still, otherwise lack of knowledge will continue to feed fear and misinformation. We absolutely need to really understand the biological effects of low doses of ionizing radiation. There is too much at stake not to.
Cynthia H. McCollough, PhD, FAAPM, FACR, FAIMBE
Professor of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering
Director, CT Clinical Innovation Center and X-ray Imaging Core
Department of Radiology
Is This Old News, Or An Important Historical Tale?
This is not a scoop or a breaking story. It is a piece designed to provide a new perspective on a story that has already been the subject of a congressional investigation that included a televised Congressional hearing.
There were several news stories issued soon after the release of the congressional investigation (Ex: Energy Dept. Defends Obama’s Climate Action Plan By Firing Honest Scientist Daily Caller, Dec 20, 2016) but there has been little follow up or attention.
Perhaps that is related to the fact that the committee staff released its report on December 20, 2016, probably as one of their last items to complete before the Christmas holidays.
This version of the story is partly based on that staff report and its associated appendices. It has been supplemented with additional research and conversations with key players in the drama. It will be told in several parts.
Scientist With More Than 30 Years Government Service Fired
Some stories, like this one, are best told from the end with supporting historical details provided as necessary.
The individuals involved in eliminating the DOE’s Low Dose Radiation Research Program, most of whom were in the senior executive service, went to a lot of trouble to execute and solidify their decision. Efforts to halt the program seem to have begun within months after the January 2009 retirement of Senator Pete Dominici, the program’s creator and protector in Congress. The defunding effort finished in October 2014 with the beginning of FY2015, which included only enough funding to close out the last of the grants.
The decision defense efforts were fully completed in December 2014 after the deciding managers had successfully beaten back a Congressional effort to pass legislation to restore funding to the program.
Their protective actions included risking their own careers by suppressing information requested by responsible Congressional committee staff and violating rules that protect government employees from retaliation for performing their professional duties with integrity.
Anyone who has any knowledge of rules associated with managing federal government workers will recognize the uniqueness of the series of actions that killed the LDRRP when they learn that the responsible people went to the trouble of firing – not reassigning – a well-respected Radiation Biologist with a Harvard PhD in Cancer Biology who had been working for the government for more than thirty years.
No, Dr. Noelle Metting didn’t assault anyone and she was not found guilty of any acts of turpitude.
Her offense in the eyes of her bosses was answering questions from Congressional staffers about the program she had been managing for more than a decade. Within a week after briefing staffers, she was removed from her position as Program Manager. Less than two months later on the same day as her office’s Christmas party, she was officially notified that she was being separated from Federal Service.
Note: After months of haggling that involved both union representatives and legal counsel, Dr. Metting was restored as a civil servant in a different office with a different assignment.
What Happened To Justify The Personnel Action?
No direct transcripts of the fateful October 16, 2014 meeting with both House and Senate staffers have been made available. The senior DOE people who attended the meeting (Dr. Todd Anderson, Dr. Julie Carruthers, and Dr. Marcos Huerta) have refused to answer or return calls on numerous occasions during the past three weeks.
Here is an excerpt from the official Notice of Proposed Removal that DOE Office of Science managers issued to Dr. Metting on December 4, 2014 – with the approval of the DOE Office of General Counsel – that details her “Defiance of Authority” one of the two charges that supposedly supported the decision to fire her.
“On October 16, 2014, several members of SC’s senior staff met with Hill staffers to discuss H.R. 5544, a House bill which currently conflicts with SC’s management prioritization plan… You were cautioned to avoid interjecting contradictory opinions regarding this project. When you gave the presentation, you did not follow instructions or the prepared briefing… Your failure to adhere to SC’s talking points while speaking in your professional capacity on behalf of SC as a DOE official was confusing and undermined the purpose of your presentation… By defying my instructions, you directly undermined SC management priorities.”
(Note: For obscure reasons, SC is the internal DOE abbreviation for the Office of Science.)
(Source: HSST Dec 20, 2016 p. 20)
Dr. Metting, after suffering in silence for a couple of years, has decided to share her experiences. She recognizes that she was treated unfairly and that remaining silent is harmful not only to herself, but to the science to which she has devoted her career.
During the meeting with Congressional staffers, Dr. Metting provided a brief that had been vetted and approved by her managers. In response to questions from the knowledgable staffers who attended the meeting, she described opportunities for future research related to the science projects her program had funded. As she stated, she answered truthfully and passionately.
Her bosses had already repurposed all of the funding for the low dose program. They had no desire for Congress to obtain information that might encourage legislation that would to force them to revise their budget priorities.
Following the meeting with Congressional staff, Dr. Anderson called Dr. Metting aside and criticized her for being too forthcoming with information that called into question the policy direction to eliminate the LDRRP that had been established by the Office of Science. Perhaps they believed that a scientist who has been working on questions that have been open areas of inquiry since the 1950s was supposed to be reticent about expressing enthusiasm for research that was starting to provide solid experimental evidence for phenomena that many scientists have observed indirectly for several decades.
Perhaps surprisingly, because Dr. Metting is a self-admitted introvert and described by her peers as a dedicated, but shy scientist, she reacted to her supervisor’s criticism with the apparently horrendous offense of saying it was “idiotic” to accuse her of stepping out of the bounds of her scientific position.
It seems that eruption of emotion was translated into justification for the second of the two charges against her, “Inappropriate Workplace Communication.”
Was Program Killed Because Supervisor Didn’t Understand It?
While the actions taken prove the importance of the decision to eliminate the program, it is more difficult to discern the motives behind the assault on this particular branch of science.
Dr. Metting suggested an explanation. She thinks her supervisors were uncomfortable with the highly specialized area of radiation biology. She suspected that Dr. Weatherwax, the person who had to defend budget priorities for the Biological and Environmental Research office simply did not understand the science and disliked having to defend it during annual budget preparations. Apparently, she is the kind of manager that does not like to delegate explanations to subordinates, feeling that she should be seen as the expert in all areas that she is asked to fund.
From experience during the years when the LDRRP had its own budget line, Dr. Metting knew that budget reviewers in the Office of Management and Budget were always interested in understanding why the Department of Energy was investing in what some would call medical science that might be more appropriately funded by the National Institute of Health.
Dr. Metting was always able to answer that question by pointing to the fact that DOE is responsible for the standards used to protect its many occupational radiation workers, the expertise in the subject area that resides in the National Laboratories that work for DOE, and the fact that the labs and the universities that worked with them had the appropriate facilities for conducting the research. She was also able to explain the uniqueness of her program and the other agencies that were keenly interested in the results it was finding.
She was also able to explain how the science was progressing and the benefits that the government was receiving for its modest investment of approximately $20-$25 million per year. It had been her area of expertise for thirty years; it is her favorite professional topic of conversation.
Was Program Killed To Provide More Money For Climate Change Research?
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee report, along with several of the media pieces based on that report, suggested a different explanation that seems to be biased by partisan bickering. They concluded that the DOE executives moved the money from the LDRRP to fund Obama Administration priorities in climate change research. That explanation makes little sense based on the fact that the LDRRP was less than 3% of the $600 million – and growing – budget for Biological and Environmental Research. It was too small to make any substantive difference in accomplishment.
In addition, one of the prime potential payoffs for the research is information that would reduce uncertainties about the effects of low doses of radiation. With the research that had already been completed under the program, there was growing experimental evidence showing that there are radiation doses and dose rates that are not only safe, but beneficial to living organisms including human beings.
For too long, certain authoritative bodies have asserted that it was safe to assume that all doses of radiation. no matter how small, could harm people. They said that without more certain information, the best standard was to keep doses As Low As Reasonably Achievable, with the implied goal of zero if at all possible. That assertion, ostensibly meant to protect the public, causes angst, stress and ever more expensive effort since zero radiation dose is not an achievable destination anywhere on earth.
The assertion that all radiation is dangerous is an especially pernicious mantra; it tells people that every exposure causes harm that will never heal. The harm cannot be detected and the timing of the long term effects cannot be predicted. For people who tend to worry, this unknown, unseen boogeyman is ready to strike at any time and there is nothing they can do to have any control of the situation.
That assertion of invisible harm rests on a foundation of thin or non-existent evidence. Permissible doses and whether or not humans have any tolerance for radiation has been a subject of intense debate since the 1950s. The LDRRP was carefully designed to help provide evidence that would reduce the unknowns and allow decisions based on information, not ignorance.
The LDRRP Can Enable Effective Solutions
Firming up recognition of the already existing evidence and supporting additional research that integrated that evidence with large scale epidemiology efforts like the NCRP’s Million Worker Study could go a long way in making ultra low emission nuclear energy easier to develop, more affordable to maintain and easier to clean up to acceptable levels.
Continuing the LDRRP would have supported the Administration’s focus on effectively addressing climate change.
It also offers a new vector for health related research. Prior to the 1956 assertion that all doses of radiation are harmful, medical practitioners had developed a number of effective treatments using radiation. With new biological understanding and measuring tools, the LDRRP offered the possibility of developing even better treatments that might avoid some of the horrific side effects of chemical medicines that one often hears or reads in the lengthy disclaimer sections of pharmaceutical advertising.
The next installment of this series will go further back into history to find other possible reasons that the LDRRP became an important bureaucratic target for elimination.
A version of the above was first published on Forbes.com under the headline Inconvenient Low Dose Radiation Science Axed Under Obama Administration
It appears that the DOE was just following the example of the methods used in the EPA. National Review has an article of similar tactics used there. “EPA Meltdown: Reform Junk Science Agency Causes Freakout” Search on title to read. Or on junkscience.com. Milloy also discusses the EPA’s illegal human experiments with particulates and Diesel exhaust. Interesting. Strange that that was not investigated. Is subjecting people to the harmful PM2.5 not like Tuskegee, and the radiation experiments?
Milloy’s book is quite interesting. I’ve only skimmed it so far, but the portion related to testing diesel exhaust on children reflects an agency decision process that has some similarities with the DOE Office of Science process described in this post.
The brief version of the story is that the EPA considers diesel exhaust to be a human carcinogen with no threshold. Since that policy says there is no safe level of exposure, and since there is no potential benefit for humans, the material is not allowed to be used for experiments on human subjects without a very detailed disclosure of the potential risks.
In California, it is apparently illegal for minors to be used as experiment subjects at all, since they are presumed to be unable to give informed consent.
In violation of its own rules for outside researchers, the EPA funded researchers at USC and UCLA to perform experiments on children aged 10-15 using doses of simulated diesel exhaust containing 60 times as much PM2.5 as the legal limit for outside air in the state of California (300 micrograms/cubic meter versus a legal limit of 5 micrograms/cubic meter).
Milloy’s documented proof of this series of experiments came directly from the EPA, after several rounds of FOIA requests that included some sleuthing related to pages that had been “deleted” from the record copy.
Learn the FACTS.
“in September 2012, E&E Legal (under its formal name) filed a federal lawsuit seeking to stop illegal human medical experiments conducted by the EPA. Six EPA employees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Medical School intentionally pumped what they termed “lethal” amounts of diesel exhaust, specifically small particulate matter termed “PM2.5,” directly into the lungs of human volunteers who were not properly advised of the risks. EPA actually has pictures of this gas chamber, a clear plastic pipe stuck into the mouth of a subject, his lips sealing it to his face, diesel fumes inhaled straight into his lungs.”
@Rod, “the EPA does not believe that their testing had any potential for harming children. Milloy also believes they were absolutely correct in recognizing there were no long term risks.”
Then why did Ms Jackson tell congress, in defending the PM2.5 for COAL POWER PLANTS that reducing to the rules levels will save the lives of 1/2 million people.
“Further underscoring the EPA’s view that PM2.5 kills is more of Ms. Jackson’s congressional testimony. At the September hearing, Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, asked Ms. Jackson, “How would you compare [the benefits of reducing airborne PM2.5] to the fight against cancer?” Ms. Jackson said, “Yeah, I was briefed not long ago. If we could reduce particulate matter to healthy levels, it would have the same impact as finding a cure for cancer in our country.” Mr. Markey asked her to repeat what she had said. Ms. Jackson responded, “Yes, sir. If we could reduce particulate matter to levels that are healthy, we would have an identical impact to finding a cure for cancer.
Given that cancer kills about 570,000 Americans per year, according to the American Cancer Society, the EPA’s claim amounts to PM2.5 being responsible for roughly 25 percent of all deaths in the U.S. annually.” – From – http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/apr/24/did-obamas-epa-relaunch-tuskegee-experiments/
How can the EPA have it both ways? Why is it not harmful in an experiment and deadly when burning coal? And thus use that “science” “experiment” to effectively shut down all coal plants.
Because Ms. Jackson was — and probably still is — a hypocritical politician who was using the power vested in her position to advance a political goal to impose additional costs on certain segments of our economy. Of course, I don’t assume she was doing it because she dislikes trucks or the products that trucks deliver to her home and the stores where she shops.
I suspect that there are people for whom those additional costs are revenues or who are pushing competitive transportation modes. Perhaps Berkshire Hathaway wants more good to be shipped by rail and its investors provided funds and support for other actions desired by the Administration.
Because the exposed populations are very different. Healthy young volunteers probably aren’t at risk of harm from brief PM 2.5 exposure, the effects of which appear to be temporary. Chronic exposures and effects on those already impaired by other things are where you get mortality and morbidity.
ER visit rates have been observed to track weather conditions which drive local PM 2.5 concentrations. Substantial effects have also been seen where indoor smoking bans have been imposed and then removed. But this kind of epidemiological data can’t tell you anything about mechanisms.
Being downwind of a coal plant is practically the definition of chronic exposure, and those exposed include those with respiratory infections, athsma and heart disease.
I’m not arguing that brief exposures or chronic exposures at moderate to low concentrations are harmful, but that is what the EPA asserts when it uses a linear, no threshold dose model for PM2.5. Those tiny particles are not something completely new in human experience; not only are there natural sources of the materials, but there have been concentrated sources ever since we began taming fire.
As is the case for low doses of radiation, it is a pretty good assumption to believe that the survirors of human evolution were either born with or have developed some level of protection against these particles.
If the EPA scientists believe that brief exposures are not harmful, they should insist that the people who write the rules take that knowledge into account and don’t extend the rules to attempt to prohibit levels far below what the science says are hazardous.
I have mixed feelings about the article, but something or some things are definitely dirty in the EPA. The fact that Obama’s clean power plan was basically written by the NRDC and was not designed to give us clean power, suggests that the EPA is heavily penetrated by the “environmental” NGOs in much the same way that Goldman Sachs is calling the shots in other departments. That they are then diverting EPA money to their pals who are activists, not scientists, while pretending they are scientists fits the facts.
The anti-technologists have way too much money compared to the number of hippies sending in $50 per year. Where does all that dough come from? How can these people afford to camp at demonstrations for weeks or months at a time? Are they all independently wealthy? Why do they sem to have infinite resources for getting their word out?
The idea that an agency which has been captured by propaganda organizations in charitable clothing is now being directed by those forces to fund its own take over actually explains a lot. And that kind of reprehensible theft of public funds is in keeping with the fine tradition of blatantly lieing about nuclear power to deny the public clean affordable power, and keep consumers vulnerable to exploitation by energy speculators.
And boo hoo, the Union of Corrupt Shills doesn’t like it. That alone tells me it’s a good thing. Of course they don’t like it. It might cut into their gravy train and the rabble of propagandists there might actually have to find something useful to do for a living.
Whether UCS behaves, as an organization and in an operational sense, as a “Union of Corrupt Shills” is somewhat immaterial. What matters is whether they — specifically individual scientific members — are capable of the introspection needed to back off a moment and ask “But what if I’m wrong?”
Casting aspersions and calling names will not likely encourage such paradigm-shifting mind-set.
Although, truth be told, at this point I’m at a loss to suggest what will.
Back in spring ’86 I’d hoped, at this stage of our collective awareness if the unfolding climate catastrophe, a few more people would be asking “Wait a minute: Just how did we get here? What has actually worked that might help get us out?”
In other forums it has been suggested that nuclear advocates such as myself abandon our own support for our “failed policies of the past.”
In deference, you know, to the flailing policies of the present.
As a young man I thought “The Fountainhead” to be an exciting, dynamic good read; perhaps even modestly decent literature.
Later I found “Atlas Shrugged” to be repetitive and shrill.
Then I looked into what became of the nuclear industries in the United States in the interim, and in France.
Ed, I don’t believe that the UCS has any individual “scientific” members. No person who bases their opinions on actual evidence could take the positions they do (and have since the late 70s when they were taking out full page ads in SciAm to lie about nuclear power). I suppose a person could adhere to the scientific method in one’s private life and espouse the UCS’s positions in public, but that would make such a person a liar, as opposed to an ignorant, irresponsible cretin.
I agree to the extent that insulting those who currently trust the UCS but might be persuaded away is a counter-productive tactic, but I see no reason to be reserved in my opinion of the actual perpetrators at UCS. Those people are reprehensible, profiting off of misinforming the public in ways that cause the public to act against their self interest. When one lies to people about matters of public policy, one enslaves them just as surely as putting chains on them; it steals their opportunity to make decisions about running their lives.
Can I just ask for a verification of one of your statements?
“Senior Department of Energy executives, several of whom were “Acting” Obama Administration appointees”
Was it Obama, or did you mean to write Trump? It’s entirely possible, I suppose, that there are still Obama “Acting appointees” in DOE, but I would think it more likely that there would be Trump “Acting appointees” because the Senate would not yet have gotten around to vetting his appointments, whereas Obama appointments should have been vetted years ago?
Oh, nevermind – I read further and realized this is not a ‘recent events’ story – this is a summary of a story that has been playing out in slow motion for years.
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