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
Photo Credit: ash_crow via Flickr