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Whistleblower Protection and Scientific Research

What are the implications for academia?

November 16, 2012

I had planned to write about the many codes of ethics that have been in the news over the past weeks and year, but that can wait.  I got sidetracked by the news that the Senate has at long last passed a strengthened whistleblower law, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012. The Act explicitly draws under its umbrella scientists working for federal agencies, protecting them from retaliation for reporting a reasonable belief of evidence of “censorship related to research, analysis, or technical information,’’ meaning “any effort to distort, misrepresent, or suppress research, analysis, or technical information” if that censorship is or could be unlawful; wasteful; represents gross mismanagement or abuse of authority, or “a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

Whistleblower law is designed to protect against retaliation in the form of firing, demotion, blackballing, etc. (agency rewards can help compensate for the latter, which may not be wholly preventable).  For scientists and engineers with highly specialized skills, and who have the ability to understand and interpret the complexities of data or practice that might be overlooked or opaque to others, this form of protection is important. It recognizes that corruption—the essential target of whistleblower law—may go beyond the traditional realm of money and finances, or at least be reflected in areas of operation beyond the financial spreadsheet.

The new Act does not accomplish everything that many whistleblower advocates had hoped for (what new law does?). In many ways, the “enhancement” is a restoration or revalidation of some provisions that have been weakened over the last decade or so (in part by the courts) but there are some new compensatory provisions that make it more likely that those with knowledge of wrongdoing will come forward, and that the process of doing so will be less onerous,

The law applies clearly to scientists working at agencies like FDA, NASA, and NIH, and past experiences at all three probably contributed to these revisions. With the boundary between academic science and federal scientific agencies so blurry, I wonder whether the law in effect opens up more potential for scientists within the academy to alert relevant agencies—whether funding agencies or those with whom there is a direct collaborative link to a specific issue—of credible probability of scientific fraud, waste, or misconduct. That is, could academic scientists indirectly—by contract or association—become eligible for these whistleblower protections?  I suspect we may see a case or two in the future where that will be determined.


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