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Loss of Scientific Integrity Finding at USGS National Water Quality Lab

March 16, 2021

Background Information

The USGS National Water Quality Laboratory (NWQL) is an environmental analysis and research facility specializing in chemical analyses of water, sediment and tissue, and the taxonomic identification and quantification of benthic invertebrates. The NWQL Analytical Services (AS) Section carries out analyses of 800+ inorganic and organic constituents in more than one million samples of groundwater, surface water, wastewater, sediment, atmospheric precipitation and biological tissues. Each year, the NWQL analyzes tens of thousands of water samples. The lab’s work helps understand the health of aquatic systems and pinpoint potential sources of contamination such as agricultural runoff. 

On July 8, 2020, NWQL’s quality assurance/quality control processes revealed that data values of some samples had been altered without required explanatory notation. USGS immediately launched an investigation and has determined that from March 2019 through June 2020, a single AS Section analyst significantly departed from accepted practices and standards, violating the USGS’s fundamental science practices and resulting in a loss of scientific integrity. Evidence shows the analyst acted alone and intentionally to falsify data for the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in approximately 2,300 water samples.

The USGS has taken appropriate measures to notify users of the affected analyses and is reprocessing and flagging the permanent analysis records to properly reflect the loss of quality control for the samples involved. The USGS is also examining ways to improve its analytical workflows and quality assurance/quality control procedures to identify weaknesses and remedy any issues found.

USGS Media Statement

Attributable to Dr. David Applegate, U.S. Geological Survey Associate Director for Natural Hazards Exercising the Delegated Authority of the Director.

The USGS’s reputation for scientific excellence is founded on scientific integrity and transparency. Every day, thousands of disciplined and principled scientists work conscientiously to maintain those fundamental tenets. As soon as we learned of this issue, we implemented our standard protocols to investigate and take appropriate action. The unethical actions of a single individual are deeply troubling, and we offer our sincerest apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused our customers.

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