An Energy Department scientist told members of the House Science, Space and Technology committee on Wednesday that management sought to fire her for trying to defend certain research during a congressional briefing.
Dr. Noelle Metting, a senior radiation biologist, said her supervisors “began an unjust and painful saga of unrelenting intimidation” after she spoke positively about an area of research Energy officials sought to move funding away from.
Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), chairman of the energy subcommittee, said Energy officials unfairly sought to fire Metting for speaking up for the department’s low-dose radiation research program during an October 2014 congressional briefing.
“When scientists get fired for speaking honestly about their work, it is clear that politics are negatively impacting the work of Congress and stifling public dialogue, not to mention research in those key areas,” he said.
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As its name suggests, the low-dose radiation program studies the health impacts of radiation exposure near sites like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, which suffered a major radiation leak triggered by an earthquake in 2011.
The Energy Department says federal agencies use the research to set worker safety standards and for national security purposes.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), ranking member of the oversight subcommittee, expressed his concerns about employee retaliation at the agency.
“While I don’t believe that Dr. Metting’s actions at the meeting should be characterized as that of a whistleblower, I do strongly support the right of federal employees to petition the government and speak openly about their work without fear of retaliation,” Beyer said.
Dr. Sharlene Weatherwax, the associate director of biological and environmental research at DoE, told the energy and oversight subcommittees that her department sought priority funding for bioenergy, bio-design and environmental microbiology research.
Metting said she faced retaliation from a supervisor, Dr. Julie Carruthers, a senior science and technology adviser with the Office of the Deputy Director for Science Programs, after answering congressional questions about low-dose radiation research, which became less of a funding priority for Energy.
“After the briefing ended and the Hill staff had left, Dr. Carruthers accused me of advocating and lobbying for the program, and of being too enthusiastic about research results. I was shocked. During the briefing, I had answered all the questions based on my knowledge as a scientific subject-matter expert,” she said.
Carruthers did not respond to emails Wednesday seeking comment on Metting’s testimony.
A week after the briefing, Metting said her supervisors “began an unjust and painful saga of unrelenting intimidation,” and was removed from her position as manager of low-dose radiation research and detailed her to unclassified tasks.
In December 2014, she received a notice of proposed removal on the grounds of “insubordinate defiance of authority,” and “inappropriate workplace communication.” She was placed on administrative leave until she was officially terminated in May 2015.
However, DoE settled with Metting after she appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board on the matter of her firing. Energy rehired Metting, but she said she’s been unable to access documents or personal belongings from her old office.
“I suggest it’s unacceptable that scientists are put under pressure to espouse views that are not their own, and that federal scientists are persecuted for presenting accurate information and [their] professional opinion to those charged with providing funds for this research,” Metting said.
Weatherfax said the proposal to fire Metting “enumerated a number of issues” unrelated to her participation in the briefing. However, Metting said she had never received written notice or disciplinary action during her 14 years at Energy.
In emails obtained by the subcommittees, Biological & Environmental Research management, including Weatherwax, sought to keep a committee bill to mandate funding for low-dose radiation research from reaching the Senate.
“I think this is an opportunity to subtly yet firmly let the Senate know that they don’t need to pursue a companion bill to the HSST [House Science, Space and Technology] bill,” Weatherwax said in an October 2014 email prior to the briefing.
During the hearing, Weatherwax said DoE officials gave an honest accounting of the department’s budget priorities, and that Metting was not being punished for her participation in the meeting.
“Our intent was to provide information about how we develop our budget priorities to balance the program portfolio that includes many broad elements, of which the low-dose radiation research is one. So we were there to provide a full accounting of all the science that’s presented so that Congress can its own determinations about how come to our decisions,” Weatherwax said.
Since its inception, the low-dose radiation research program has received more than a quarter-billion dollars in funding, Weatherwax said.