Polar Bear Scientist Cleared; Interior Dept. Still Under Openness Cloud

October 3, 2012

Interior Department scientists may want to think again about publishing their results. If the findings conflict with the department's drilling goals or political expediency, they may be subject to dunking-stool investigative procedures.

Case in point: Charles Monnett, a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in Alaska, published a paper in 2006 noting observations of dead polar bears believed to have drowned because of disappearing Arctic ice. The observations became iconic evidence in the highly political debate over global warming during the Bush years (could the Endangered Species Act be used to force action on global warming?). Less obvious, however, was its dissonance with Interior/BOEM's drive to approve Shell Oil's plan to drill in Arctic waters.

In 2011, years after Monnett's polar bear observations, the Interior Department's Inspector General started an investigation of Monnett's science. The probe was started after a complaint by a faceless accuser who was a career Interior employee. The investigation's findings — partially published September 28, 2012 — were confused and contained no findings of scientific misconduct.

The principal charge upheld by the IG was that Monnett had leaked e-mails, some of which showed that Interior during the Bush administration had been ordering employees to keep scientific deliberations secret.

While the bulk of the investigation focused on the integrity of Monnett's scientific work, the probe did not follow procedures suggested under Interior's scientific integrity policy. Instead, it evaluated the science using scientifically untrained criminal investigators under the quasi-criminal procedures of the IG's office. An agency press officer had denied on the record that the Monnett probe had anything to do with the merits or integrity of the science.