Polar Bear Scientist Faces New Questions

Aug 10, 2011

A wildlife biologist is continuing to face questions about an influential paper he wrote on apparently drowned polar bears, with government investigators reportedly asking whether he improperly steered a research contract to another scientist as a reward for reviewing that paper.

"They seem to be suggesting that there is some sort of conspiracy that involves global warming and back scratching that appears to be frankly just nuts," says Jeff Ruch, a lawyer with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Ruch's group is providing legal representation to Charles Monnett, a wildlife biologist with an agency of the Department of the Interior. Monnett was flying over the Arctic in 2004, doing a routine survey of whales, when his team spotted an unusual sight — dead polar bears floating in the water.

Monnett's report on what he observed raised public alarm about the threat of climate change and melting ice, and the sighting of dead bears was cited by Al Gore in his movie An Inconvenient Truth. The dead bears became a potent symbol of the perils that the bears face as the sea ice retreats.

But now Monett is under an official investigation by the Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General.

In February, agents from that office questioned Monnett about the dead bear sightings and his 2006 report on them in a scientific journal. "We're not sure why the Inspector General felt it needed to open an investigation on this. They indicated there are allegations," says Ruch. "We don't know who they're from or why, after review, they thought this 2006 note was worth assigning criminal investigators to."

Investigators again quizzed Monnett about that polar bear paper during a second interview on August 9, Ruch says.

As part of his job, Monnett helped manage contracts for government-funded research. Ruch says in this latest interview, the investigators seemed to accuse Monnett of improperly steering a contract for a new study of polar bears to the University of Alberta. They pointed to the fact that a university scientist who got the contract gave Monnett comments on his polar bear paper

"They asked whether there was a quid pro quo or whether there was some connection between the University of Alberta professor providing some sort of peer review on the polar bear paper and his getting the award of the contract," says Ruch.

Ruch says the investigators focused on one exchange between the two scientists about the polar bear paper that took place on the same day that the research contract was being finalized. "That was the big A-ha moment for them," Ruch says. "And if that's all they have, then this has been a colossal waste of time."

The research contract had been in negotiations for months and that Monnett's supervisors had signed off on it, says Ruch, who added that the University of Alberta was the only organization considered for this new polar bear tagging project because the contract piggybacked on research it was already doing.

And while Monnett asked the university scientist to read his soon-to-be-famous paper on dead polar bears, Ruch says others--both agency officials and the scientific journal--reviewed it before it was published.

The University of Alberta research project being funded by the contract in question received a stop-work order around the same time that Monnett was put on administrative leave by his agency last month. But that stop-work order was rescinded and the research is now continuing.

A spokesperson for Monnett's agency has stated that "the agency placed Mr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong." The Inspector General's office did not return calls requesting comment.

Some advocacy groups say, this whole episode looks like political interference with science and it will intimidate other government researchers.

"There's no way this can have anything but a chilling effect on the ability of other scientists to carry out their work," says Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that campaigned to have the polar bear listed as a threatened species. Her group has teamed up with Greenpeace to ask the administration for an investigation into this investigation.

But others caution against rushing to any judgments.

"We won't know, until the [inspector general] is done, exactly what the charges are and exactly what they are finding," says Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

She says in the past, the inspector general's office has actually uncovered political interference with science. "In previous administrations, we've been very grateful for what the inspector generals at Interior have found," says Grifo. "They've brought to light a lot of things that we just wouldn't have known about or been able to document otherwise."

Some polar bear scientists worry that, for the public, this investigation has created doubt about both the original observations of dead bears and the threat of climate change.

Steve Amstrup, senior scientist with a group called Polar Bears International, says Monnett wasn't the only person to have seen those dead polar bears in the water. "But yet, the news that he was being investigated caused some people to right away jump to the conclusion that those observations may be flawed," says Amstrup.

He says there's no reason to think that, and that other research also shows that climate change and retreating sea ice is a real danger for polar bears.

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