USGS finds data fraud, closes chemistry lab | June 27, 2016 Issue - Vol. 94 Issue 26 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 94 Issue 26 | p. 14 | News of The Week
Issue Date: June 27, 2016 | Web Date: June 24, 2016

USGS finds data fraud, closes chemistry lab

Misconduct has led to delays and 1 retraction in environmental quality measurements reports
Department: Government & Policy
News Channels: Analytical SCENE
Keywords: misconduct, USGS, Inspector General, mass spectrometry, scientific integrity

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 “At least seven reports have been delayed, and to date, one report has been retracted.”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.

USGS permanently closed the lab on March 1 and issued a public notification on the lab’s website last month ahead of the OIG report. The lab routinely processed samples as a service for USGS scientists and scientists from other organizations.

“One chemist was principally in charge of operating the mass spectrometer” during the years covered by the inspection, OIG said in its final inspection report.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
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Comments
Kenneth Faught (June 24, 2016 7:25 PM)
I suppose this will be blamed on just another rogue employee like the one(s) at places like the IRS, VA hospitals, GSA and Secret Service. Sadly, this is endemic thru every agency where anyone cares to scratch the surface.
Samuel Tunes (June 29, 2016 9:29 PM)
This sort of stuff happens in any organization both private and public. It's how it is handled is what's important. IG has evaluated and published its findings, USGS has closed the lab, revoked a report, and is pursuing disciplinary actions. Things are still unfolding. Government is working, maybe not as quickly as one would like, but it is working. To insinuate that only government is susceptible to this kind of stuff is a bit tin-foil-hat.
Dr Bill Kiele (June 25, 2016 11:19 AM)
How perilous things are when people of presumed integrity fail to measure up. In the court system, when there a compromise of a similar nature is discovered in evidence processing, large sets of trials presumed closed have to be tossed and retried, and the perpetrator him- or herself is put on trial to give an account.

The chemist who betrayed the trust placed in him or her is subject to several federal laws, to be sure, and be should tried under them.
Lawrence Oshanek (June 25, 2016 11:38 AM)
It is no surprise that modern "science" is driven by politically "religious" ideology.
Samuel Tunes (June 29, 2016 9:19 PM)
Unsubstantiated.
Alex Matassa (July 6, 2016 2:06 PM)
Environmentalism is a religion. That is well documented over the centuries although the name has changed several times. Paganism and all sorts of "mother earth" religions have all been combined into the current environmentalist ethos.

However, there is also a non-religious aspect to all of the, so called, "environmental science" being produced these days. Governments give out free money to anyone who can substantiate Government's request for more tax money to fight this non-existent danger. Only researchers who find "evidence" of global warming's immanent destruction of all things get the money.
Robert Buntrock (July 11, 2016 8:55 AM)
Both this comment and that of L. Oshanek are ideologically driven deflections. To call environmental processes and regulations "environmentalism" and a "religion" is worse than mislabeling, more like representing a religion of the anti-environmental group.
Gary G. (June 26, 2016 6:59 AM)
I am very curious to know what, exactly, has been affected? Did the data manipulation influence any decisions made on environmental matters? Affect private individuals?
Hprace B. Cross (June 29, 2016 2:34 PM)
That is a good question, Mr. Gary G. I too, would like to know what issues (environmental or otherwise) were affected by such nefarious behavior.
mpainter (June 26, 2016 8:54 AM)
The USGS has lost its reputation for quality during the present administration. The year delay in public notification is symtomatic of this decay. One gets the impression that it was the OIG that prompted the notification.
JimB (June 26, 2016 8:25 PM)
It is not clear exactly what was wrong with and what were the changes. It is common to make corrections such as for calibration failures, but what results needed to be "improved"? And how was this done?

And...I thought raw data was government-owned information that is required to be archived.
Samuel Tunes (June 29, 2016 9:22 PM)
It is required, that's the problem. The lab did not comply with established protocol. I wish they would just come out with the whole story. It's been a piecemeal endeavor trying to figure out what actually happened. Meanwhile everyone is speculating including myself.
Tom Davidson (June 27, 2016 12:16 PM)
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.
C. Horlacher (July 5, 2016 4:29 PM)
All good points by Davidson on potential sources of error effecting ICP-MS measurements.

Definitely a failure of analytical protocols, e.g. QA/QC practices, that should have caught the problem early on. However the apparent manipulation of their internal analyses of standard reference materials (SRMs) is really unforgiveable and not likely the result of a mistake by an inexperienced operator.

In the future, this type of problem would be caught by running blind SRMs and duplicate samples at an external, independent lab that is accredited under ISO 17025 for the ICP-MS method.

One wonders if the USGS lab routinely sent check samples to an independent,
accredited lab for validation?

In the mining sector, check samples of mineral materials are routinely sent to an independent lab for analysis and validation of the primary lab's work. This is particularly important since the assays may be used in the estimation of mineral resources/reserves which are key in determining the economic viability of a mining project.
Will Janoschka (June 27, 2016 10:23 PM)
If paid for by the public, each and every attempted measurement of anything, need be retained, as the very, very best-us measurement of whatever we were trying to measure, then and there! In all of science there can never be any justification for replacement/adjustment for those measured numbers. This does not care of what measurement was attempted. In my experience, it was more than four years before anyone (including me) had a clue of what may have been measured! Some want political BS, others only want the original numbers, plus the best history on what measurement was attempted (when/where)!
All the best! -will-
steve baugh (June 28, 2016 12:17 PM)
Now I finally know what the term "political scientist" means. I always thought it was an oxy-moron.....
Samuel Tunes (June 29, 2016 9:32 PM)
I don't think it means, what you think it means.
T Foo (June 29, 2016 3:30 PM)
ICP-MS is typically used for metals analyses of solids.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inductively_coupled_plasma_mass_spectrometry

http://crustal.usgs.gov/laboratories/icpms/intro.html

Preparation of samples for ICP analyses typically involves dissolving/digesting the elements of interest into a strong mineral acid, which can be problematic with regard to completeness and consistency for obtaining rigorous analyses. Nonetheless, such issues are no justification for unethical conduct.
Bruce Solka (June 29, 2016 6:20 PM)
Having enjoyed a 40-some year career in mass spectrometry, including supervision of numerous chemists, I find this story very disappointing. Certainly the primary operator bears much of the responsibility here but I hope that any investigation includes a close look at the behavior of the lab supervisors.
Heather Kauth (July 5, 2016 6:13 PM)
The report is here:

https://www.doioig.gov/sites/doioig.gov/files/2016EAU010Public.pdf

But I think its interesting that it does not specifically state how the data was compromised, or the intent and culpability of the operator. There is no indication that the operator had malicious intent or collusion with political interests as has been intimated in the comments here. It is a case of poor laboratory procedures, which implicates training and lab supervision. It doesn't discuss bias (a tendency to report consistently higher or lower values for mineral and water analyses) or effect size (How much do they think the data was off by?)
But it was apparently egregious enough to be beyond what would expect of normal measurement error.
David Mendenhall (July 6, 2016 10:01 PM)
My favorite TV show is "Forensic Files", illustrating modern analytical techniques in crime investigation, but I cringe when I think how easy it would be to fake evidence. Sometimes a single hair is enough to track down and convict a killer. Planting a hair would be a lot easier than planting a gun.

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