Interior Probe of Polar Bear Scientist Baffles, Looks Political

August 10, 2011

Political suppression of environmental science has been a hot topic this month as agencies issue their science integrity policies. The timing could not be worse for a so far seemingly groundless Interior Department probe of the main scientist responsible for warning that climate change was harming polar bears. It's a story that challenges environmental reporters on the question of whether an agency press spokesperson is more credible than a scientist.

The merits of the case, the charges, and the facts are to a large extent unknown as the Interior Inspector General's (IG) office continues to withhold most details of its investigation, which has not reached any conclusions. But that has not kept conservatives and climate change deniers from picking it up as a banner to support their belief that climate science is wrong.

Charles Monnett, a Ph.D. wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM, formerly Minerals Management Service or MMS), had coordinated much of BOEM's research on Arctic wildlife and ecology.

Monnett's 2006 article in the scientific journal Polar Biology documented aerial observations that the retreat of ice in the Arctic was forcing polar bears to swim longer distances in open water, and apparently causing some to drown. The study got major news coverage and was taken up as a talking point by advocates of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, but it was not challenged on scientific grounds.

Interior suspended Monnett on July 18, 2011, without telling him why. He was later told that the investigation was into charges of "scientific misconduct" from a party or parties not identified. It is not known whether the faceless accusers may have any connection to the petroleum industry. BOEM and its predecessor agency MMS have been accused of pushing for oil industry interests. BOEM on August 4 approved a Shell plan to drill off Alaska's Arctic shore, under protest from environmentalists saying the area would be ecologically vulnerable to a spill and hard to clean up.

BOEM spokesperson Melissa Schwartz denied July 29 that the probe had anything to do with scientific integrity even though IG investigators had been telling Monnett and his attorneys in February that it did. New York Times' Dot Earth blogger Andrew C. Revkin noted that her non-denial "doesn’t mesh well with the transcript" of the IG investigators' February 23, 2011, interview with Monnett.

Those transcripts showed IG criminal investigators with no scientific background trying persistently to find flaws in peer-reviewed science published in a scientific journal some five years ago, and largely unquestioned until the IG started trying to find flaws. The transcripts showed little interest by the IG investigators in other angles, such as conflict of interest or improper procurement.

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which is legally representing Monnett, the Interior IG's office referred the Monnett matter to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, and Justice declined to prosecute it.

The BOEM non-denial by Schwartz seemed to suggest that procurement irregularity might be the basis for the IG probe. That impression was bolstered when it was revealed that the agency had issued a stop-work order July 13 for some polar bear research involving Monnett. But while media trumpeted the stop-work order in relaying BOEM's denial of a science witch-hunt, they gave little play to BOEM's quiet August 1 cancellation of that stop-work order.  Monnett had acted on the contract under the direction of BOEM's contracting and procurement staff, according to PEER.