Interior Employee Set Off Enquiry on Polar Bear Scientists, Officials Says

The allegations that led to an Interior Department investigation of Charles Monnett, a federal biologist specializing in Arctic wildlife, were made by “a seasoned career Department of the Interior employee” in March 2010, the department’s acting inspector general wrote last month.

In keeping with the tradition of shielding the identity of informants, the employee was not identified, but the origins and aims of the investigation into “acts of scientific misconduct” were laid out in an Aug. 25 letter from the acting inspector general, Mary L. Kendall, to Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Ms. Kendall wrote that her office “investigates allegations of scientific misconduct by following the facts wherever they lead,” though it does not “hold itself out as technically expert in any area of scientific discipline.”

This assertion that the inspector general can pursue issues of scientific misconduct appears to contradict statements from officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, a division of the Interior Department where Dr. Monnett works. They said that any charges of scientific misconduct would be handled by the Office of Scientific Integrity, which was established this year to make good on President Obama’s pledge to keep politics out of science.

Dr. Monnett went back to work last week after more than a month on administrative leave, but was assigned to the environmental assessment division rather than to his former duties as an adviser on scientific contracts. The department said in a statement said that action could still be taken against him. He has remained silent since his suspension, letting his legal counsel with a group called the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility speak for him.

The broader controversy began with the publication in 2006 of a scientific paper jointly authored by Dr. Monnett and Jeffrey S. Gleason that reported a sighting of drowned polar bears after a storm in the Beaufort Sea. It speculated that diminishing ice in the warming Arctic might have contributed to their fate. The paper, which in scientific terms is known as an observational note and not a full-blown study, helped to make polar bears the public face of the implications of climate change.

Much of the current controversy seems to focus on the investigative powers of the independent inspector general. Ms. Kendall’s agents have delved into scientific matters, asking Dr. Monnett and Dr. Gleason about survey techniques, mathematical calculations and the framing of the abstract of the polar bear paper.

At the same time, the inspector general’s office itself may now be required to explain its actions to the new Office of Scientific Integrity, which has been asked by Dr. Monnett’s legal counsel to examine if the investigators overstepped their mandate. His attorneys want the office to determine if top officials of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acted unfairly in suspending the scientist and impugning his integrity.

Department officials, meanwhile, said the impetus for the suspension was not the polar bear paper, but Dr. Monnett’s handling of contract oversight. During questioning by the inspector general’s agents, Dr. Monnett said he had pre-reviewed a contract proposal from Canadian polar experts. Later, in his capacity as a member of a technical advisory panel on contracts, he recommended that the Canadian team be awarded that contract.

The inspector general’s agents passed this information to Dr. Monnett’s superiors, who put him on administrative leave. One of them later wrote Dr. Monnett that “You admitted that you reviewed a proposal” that “you helped draft.” When Dr. Monnett was put on leave, work was halted on a $1.2 million contract for a study of polar bears’ ranges. The stop-work order on the study was lifted after about a week.

At least one other agency scientist, however, stepped up to note that Dr. Monnett’s handling of the Canadian contract was in accord with established practices.

Richard Prentki, an oceanographer with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management who does similar contract-review work, wrote a memo to his superiors indicating that he and fellow employees had essentially been doing the same thing. The department had better clarify the rules so that others do not find themselves in a situation paralleling Dr. Monnett’s, he wrote.

Meanwhile, Ms. Kendall’s letter to Senator Inhofe, a Republican who is a leading Congressional skeptic on man-made climate change, acknowledges few limits on her work.

She noted that when the original allegations were made about Dr. Monnett’s polar bear paper, the Office of Scientific Integrity had not been established. While her office is “developing protocols” to coordinate with the new office, she wrote, her description of the inspector general’s approach suggests that issues of scientific integrity are still fair game.

The office “investigates allegations of scientific misconduct by following the facts wherever they lead,” she wrote. “We will determine what the process is that governs the scientific activities at issue, whether there was any deviation from the process, and if so, how, and the extent to which such deviation may have affected the results.”

http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/06/interior-employee-set-off-inquiry-on-polar-scientist/

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