Interior Brass Under Investigation for Political Interference with Science

September 8, 2011

One of the key problems with the "scientific integrity" policies being drawn up at federal agencies this year is the built-in assumption that the problem is dishonest scientists. That may be a red herring. The policies tend to downplay what often seems to be a bigger problem: that political appointees corrupted by power and campaign money are twisting science to meet the needs of their paymasters or puppeteers.

Even as "scientific integrity" policies were being drawn up at White House behest, political appointees at the Interior Department may have been caught red-handed abusing their power to interfere with scientific findings they found inconvenient.

Now, it seems, Interior's Scientific Integrity Officer is investigating top officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) for their possible role in the affair. They have been charged with scientific misconduct. The investigation includes BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich. And the Inspector General (IG) may be looking at a cover-up by higher-ups.

Last month the Interior Inspector General's office abruptly abandoned an investigation many thought was little more than a political smear of science suggesting that climate change was harming polar bears. Dr. Charles Monnett (whose paper sounded the alarm), after being suspended for six weeks while under investigation, was suddenly sent back to work without any charges being lodged.

Was it a politicization of science? Transcripts showed ham-handed IG investigators interrogating Monnett about science they had no qualifications for judging. Meanwhile, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a notorious enemy of accepted climate science, sprayed a steady stream of press releases and blog posts trying to exploit the unfounded accusations against Monnett to advance his — and the oil industry's — cause. All this came at a time when Shell and other petrofirms had largely won the Obama administration's blessing to drill in the Arctic offshore, where a spill could be catastrophic.

But whatever case there may have been against Monnett collapsed. The stop-work order on his research project was rescinded August 1. His suspension was lifted August 26. Evidence emerged suggesting that any Monnett-related contract irregularities worrying Interior were standard procedure and approved in advance by higher-ups.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the nonprofit whistleblower group that is legally representing Monnett in the matter, responded by filing a "Complaint of Scientific and Scholarly Misconduct" against Bromwich himself and directors at BOEM's Alaska regional office. Bromwich on July 29 took responsibility for Monnett's suspension. That investigation is being done by the newly created Scientific Integrity Officer — although the IG's office also claims jurisdiction over scientific integrity.

PEER reports an ominous development in the IG investigation that may signal a cover-up. "As the IG begins to examine other research contracts, the hard drive of a key BOEM manager was found to have been wiped clean after the IG asked to examine his files," a PEER August 26 press release said.