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 The stop-work order on his research project was rescinded August 1.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.
- Defend Science: "Arctic Scientist Subjected to Smear Campaign and 'Fishing Expedition' Investigation by the Department of Interior," Baltimore Chronicle, Sept. 6, 2011.
- "Interior Employee Set Off Inquiry on Polar Scientist, Official Says," Green blog (New York Times), September 6, 2011, by Felicity Barringer.
- "Polar Bear Scientist Probe Started with Complaint," Associated Press, September 1, 2011, by Dan Joling.
- "Polar Bear Scientist Was Accused by Federal Worker," NPR, September 1, 2011, by Nell Greenfieldboyce.
- "Polar Bear Researcher Is Back at Work, But Still Under Investigation," Nature newsblog, August 26, 2011, by Eugenie Samuel Reich.
- "Suspension of Arctic Scientist Suddenly Lifted," Press Release of August 26, 2011, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
- "Interior Watchdog Sees Potential Conflict in Suspended Biologist's Role Vetting Polar Bear Study," Greenwire, August 18, 2011, by Emily Yehle.
- "New Allegations Leveled Against Polar Bear Scientist," NPR, August 17, 2011, by Nell Greenfieldboyce.
- Editorial: "A Polarizing Polar Bear Investigation," New York Times, August 12, 2011.
- "Polar Bear Scientist Faces New Questions," NPR's Morning Edition, Aug. 10, 2011, by Nell Greenfieldboyce.
- "Shell's Arctic Drilling Plan: Another Disaster Waiting to Happen," Rolling Stone, August 8, 2011, by Tim Dickinson.
- "Second-Guessing Polar Bear Research," Green blog (New York Times), August 2, 2011, Felicity Barringer.
- "Arctic Scientist Who Exposed Climate Threat to Polar Bear Is Suspended: Is the Issue Really Over Drilling Permits?" AlterNet/Guardian, July 29, 2011, by Suzanne Goldenberg.
- Previous Story: "Interior Probe of Polar Bear Scientist Baffles, Looks Political," SEJ TipSheet of August 10, 2011.