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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pre-eminent bee researcher Jeffrey Pettis demoted by corrupt USDA

USDA draws protests for blocking references to bee expert's resignation

Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Department of Agriculture blocked references to a well-known bee researcher's surprise resignation last year in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Jeffery Pettis' demotion from his research perch last July at the Agricultural Research Service's Bee Laboratory shocked the American Honey Producers Association (AHPA) and the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF), whose presidents and vice presidents formally asked USDA for information on why Pettis was allowed to step down.
In an Aug. 25 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the groups' leaders described Pettis as "one of the world's most renowned honey bee researchers," who led the research on colony collapse disorder -- a phenomenon in which entire colonies disappeared from hives -- and bee health decline in his years at ARS.

"It is because of Dr. Pettis's deep commitment to honey bee science that we must express concern about USDA's decision to relieve him of his duties as Laboratory Leader at the Beltsville Area Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland," ABF President Tim Tucker and Vice President Gene Brandi and AHPA President Randy Verhoek and Vice President Darren Cox said in the letter, obtained by Greenwire.

The associations questioned USDA's reason for dropping Pettis, saying "we cannot help but to view the decision cynically." The letter recounted a meeting with Agricultural Research Service Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young during which they were told Pettis had been reassigned to a research-only position because he had fallen behind on his administrative responsibilities.
The letter also stated that other ARS honeybee scientists are "finding themselves reprimanded for reasons unclear to our organizations."
In the agency's release of the letter, this information -- as well as AHPA and ABF's request that the department reconsider its decision on Pettis -- was withheld under the Freedom of Information Act's (b)(6) exemption, which prevents the release of personnel or medical files that would "cause a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." In a letter to explain the exemptions, USDA FOIA officer Alexis Graves said that, because the letter was not written by USDA or ARS officials, the information does not serve to shed light on agency activities. Therefore, the exemption is used to balance the public's right to know with the individual's -- Pettis -- right to privacy.

Pettis led the laboratory for nine years. He continues to work in the laboratory as a researcher but doesn't have the same authority he had in setting the research agenda for the laboratory. He will also no longer serve as a spokesman for the lab, or provide testimony to Congress as he did last year.
At the time of the resignation, ARS didn't comment on the possibility that Pettis had left under pressure, saying it is not uncommon for research leaders to step down, given the amount of additional, voluntary work the position entails (Greenwire, July 7, 2014).
Following the news, Pettis addressed colleagues and friends on his demotion, according to a letter posted on the AHPA website.

"While I have strong reservations about this decision, I do not wish to challenge it," Pettis wrote. "The truth is I have been stretched too thin over the past few years to meet all the demands of the Research Leader position and my own research. The administrative aspects of my job as Research Leader have suffered because my research took precedence over administrative responsibilities."
In their letter to Vilsack, AHPA and ABF address Pettis' reference to being "stretched too thin." If he was overwhelmed with work in his post, they said, why didn't ARS offer additional administrative support as Pettis continued to set the agenda for honeybee research?
"As business owners and operators, we struggle to understand the logic behind this decision," they wrote.

'Universally respected'

In his time at the bee laboratory, Pettis was well regarded by environmentalists and industry alike, two polarized groups in the debate on whether neonicotinoid insecticides harm bees. While green groups are calling on U.S. EPA to restrict or ban these pesticides, the pest control and horticultural industry says they are indispensable tools for farmers and can be managed in a way that does not hurt bees.
"To the best of my knowledge, Dr. Pettis is universally respected for his body of work on behalf of pollinators," said Tom Van Arsdall, a spokesman for the Pollinator Partnership, which works with scientists, environmental groups and industry -- including pesticide manufacturers -- to develop solutions for stemming the rapid declines in honeybees and other insects that pollinate crops.
Pettis testified to the House Agriculture Committee last April on factors contributing to bee health decline. A story in California's East Bay Express published two months after the testimony suggested that Pettis' stance -- that pesticides affect bee health -- differed from ARS's official statements.

"It's clear that USDA is employing a 'kill the messenger' approach," said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, a food futures campaigner with Friends of the Earth, which called attention to Pettis' demotion last year. According to Finch-Haynes, Pettis has highlighted the role of pesticides more than other scientists in the agency.
"USDA's decision indicates the agency is stacked in favor of pesticide industry interests and others who have a stake in conducting business as usual instead of promoting independent, objective science," added Finck-Haynes.
Neither USDA's Office of the Secretary nor ARS responded to a request for comment.

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