"polar bear swimming in the middle of the Beaufort Sea"

"polar bear swimming in the middle of the Beaufort Sea" by danielguip on flickr

Anchorage-based wildlife scientist, Dr. Charles Monnett, has been ordered to return to work today:

The polar bear scientist who has spent more than a month suspended from his government job has now been told that he should report back to work on Friday — although NPR has learned that his job is changing and he will no longer manage federal contracts.

“Chuck is planning to go to work. He just doesn’t know what the work is going to be,” says attorney Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is providing legal representation for wildlife biologist Charles Monnett.

In 2006, Monnett published a report on his sightings of apparently drowned polar bears in the Arctic. The dead polar bears became a powerful — and controversial — symbol of the danger of melting ice and climate change.

Monnett was put on administrative leave on July 18 by the agency he works for at the Department of the Interior. The move came as Monnett was being investigated by the department’s Office of Inspector General.

That investigation is ongoing, and it is not clear what aspects of Monnett’s research or management work are still under scrutiny.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has been representing Dr. Monnett throughout his harassment, issued a press release Thursday afternoon, which they have allowed me to print here in full (emphases added):

Washington, DC — A top federal Arctic scientist is returning to work today after six weeks on administrative leave without any charges being leveled against him, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).   Meanwhile, the agency which suspended the scientist is itself under investigation for mishandling the matter.

On July 18, 2011, the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM) suspended Dr. Charles Monnett in connection with an ongoing Interior Department Office of Inspector General (IG) investigation.  The IG was probing both a 2006 paper written by Dr. Monnett and a colleague on drowning polar bears as well as approval of a 2005 joint U.S.-Canadian polar bear study.  During his paid leave, he was forbidden from doing any work, speaking to colleagues or entering any Interior offices.

The leave was ordered by BOEM Director Michael Bromwich who reversed himself after the agency was informed that its top officials, including Bromwich, are now under investigation by Interior’s Scientific Integrity Officer for breaking new departmental scientific integrity rules designed to protect researchers from political interference as alleged in a PEER complaint filed on Dr. Monnett’s behalf.

“This about-face shows Director Bromwich made yet another hasty, ill-considered decision which had to be walked back,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that, on August 1, BOEM similarly had to rescind a stop-work order it issued to Canadian researchers.  “Dr. Monnett is owed an apology.”

Even as its case against Dr. Monnett appears to implode, the IG continues to expand its investigation into BOEM management:

  • Fellow BOEM colleagues of Dr. Monnett have come forward to state that his handling of the Canadian study was completely proper and conducted under standard agency procedure;
  • 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; and
  • The IG inquiry into the peer review publication of a paper by Dr. Monnett and a colleague on sightings of drowned polar bears following a storm is drawing outrage from scientists in both the U.S. and abroad and undermining the Obama administration’s posture on climate change.

“By assigning clueless criminal investigators to paw through the scientific peer review process, the Inspector General is generating heat but shedding no light,” added Ruch, pointing out that after nearly a year-long probe the IG still refuses to specify just what it is investigating and why. “Unfortunately, this fishing expedition appears to be as expertly guided as the boat trip to Gilligan’s Island.”

BOEM has not specified Dr. Monnett’s new environmental duties except to stipulate he will not be working on research contracts.  The agency also issued a caveat that it reserves the right to bring administration action against Dr. Monnett in the future if it ever discovers a basis for doing so.

PEER  was joined early on in its questioning of  the methods and motives of the investigation into Dr. Monnett, by Greenpeace USA, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Chukchi Sea village of Pt. Hope, a group of Australian scientists, and others.  I hadn’t published the statement of Caroline Cannon, President of the Native Village of Point Hope, in my earlier articles here about this issue.  Here it is, in part:

With a long history of ignoring local input, science and traditional knowledge, we appreciate BOEMRE’s recent efforts to improve communication in our villages and listen to the concerns of the Inupiat people.  However, we still feel that the Alaska office of BOEMRE continues to put industry’s interests before the interests of the Inupiat people. Alaska BOEMRE has continued to ignore science and traditional knowledge in its decision making about oil and gas development in the Arctic. In our experience, there are still some people at BOEMRE that are disrespectful of the needs of locals and are still coming down hard on good science – this needs to stop. It is imperative that BOEMRE make decisions based on sound science and traditional knowledge. Our lives are interconnected with the ocean, the marine life, and surrounding lands – without the ocean’s bounty, we have nothing.

Though Cannon doesn’t, in this excerpt, address the Monnett case directly, her explicit concern about how BOEMRE is conducting business near to where Shell oil hopes to drill soon is telling.  Of additional interest, regarding Pt. Hope, is that it is,  through its ancient  community site of Tikiġaġmiut, “the oldest continuously settled Native American site on the continent.”   These people (I’ve been there) know sustainability.

Here’s the letter (pdf) by Australian scientists to President Obama:

Dear Mr President,

We are scientists from Australia and have been following the investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement’s inspector general’s office, into alleged mis-administration by Dr Charles Monnett, of that Federal agency, and we are very concerned to hear about the manner in which the investigation of Dr Monnett is being undertaken.

Our concerns include:

 Despite claims that this is an administrative investigation, the investigators are placing a lot of weight on the 2006 article in Polar Biology about observed deaths of four polar bears. This is despite the considerable scientific literature on the ecological impacts of climate change on polar bears and other Arctic fauna

 This seems like the type of anti-science action that would have occurred under your predecessor and is similar to actions more expected in the pre-1989 Soviet Union

In short, we view the manner and process of this investigation as both bringing the integrity of the investigating office into disrepute, and adversely reflecting on the ability of the USA to pursue publicly funded science in an honest and transparent manner.

We ask Mr. President, that you intervene to ensure that Dr Monnett’s investigation is put onto a more just and transparent pathway, and is rapidly concluded so as not to drag on and interrupt his professional career. We look to you making it clear that your commitment to removing political interference in the conduct of science, expressed in your 2009 presidential order, is taking effect. We support the call for a full inquiry into Dr Monnett’s suspension

Yours sincerely Dr Peter Tait, MBBS, FRACGP, MClimateChange

Stephan Lewandowsky, Winthrop Professor of Psychology, University of Western Australia Australian Professorial Fellow

Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland and Queensland Smart State Premiers Fellow (2009-2013)

Prof. Michael Ashley, Professor of Physics at the University of New South Wales

Of note, along the lines of scientists who have been made aware of this case against Dr. Monnett recounting similar experiences of others in the past, is this revelation posted at the science  blog, Only in it for the Gold:.  It is part of a memorandum (pdf) sent out from Richard Hannan, Acting Alaska Regional Director to Alaska Region staff, on March 2, 2007:

Please be advised that all foreign travel requests (SF 1175 requests) and any future travel requests involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice, and/or polar bears will also require a memorandum from the Regional Director to the Director indicating who’ll be the official spokesman on the trip and the one responding to questions on these issues, particularly polar bears, including a statement of assurance that these individuals understand the Administration’s position on these issues.

That administration being the George W. Bush one.

Climate change skeptics have been after Dr. Monnett since Al Gore used information about his research in the movie, An Inconvenient Truth.  Judging from the attacks launched since the last week of July on his 2005 paper and how environmentalists used that information to heighten awareness of rapid changes in the polar ice cap, the investigation of  the scientist will continue to be misrepresented by the anti-science community, even as he goes back to work.  In that sense, PEER’s Executive Director, Jeff Ruch, is right – Dr. Monnett is owed an apology.

Hopefully, it will come soon.