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Demoted Alaska polar bear researcher questions probe's integrity

Jill Burke
Florian Schulz / visionsofthewild.com photo

Alaska polar bear researcher Charles Monnett's career has been in upheaval since the government last year began probing the integrity of his work. His days of studying polar bears are over. He’s been reassigned to conduct studies about shipping traffic in the Bering Strait, the bottleneck at the top of the world off of Alaska's coast connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean. But the dispute continues.

A 2006 paper Monnett authored about polar bears drowning in storms took center stage in the early stages of an investigation that has since branched out to include whether contracts were appropriately awarded. The high-profile inquiry has raised questions about the intersection of politics and science and whether, when it comes to objectivity, the current administration has a myopic view.

Monnett works for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Regulatory Enforcement (BOEMRE). He has lost oversight of his prior projects due to an investigation by the federal Office of the Inspector General into allegations that he committed scientific misconduct. The inquiry has simultaneously raised questions about the quality of Monnett's work and the motives behind it -- as well as the appropriateness of the inquiry itself, which was national news last summer. At issue his been whether Monnett ever fudged his data or improperly abused his position overseeing contracts in order to influence how other scientists rated his work.

Monnett's attorneys believe the investigation is a blatant attempt to squash scientific freedom and choke the credibility of government scientists whose findings might obstruct oil development. In Alaska, the oil industry is mighty and the pursuit of petroleum riches beneath northern waters is the next frontier.

More than a year after the investigation began, Monnett has not been charged with any wrongdoing. His attorneys are balking at a process that is supposed to protect scientists from politically motivated pressure and attacks. Where the current Department of Interior has promised to create a buffer between the two, it has failed, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the group representing Monnett. A newly uncovered letter, obtained by PEER through the Freedom of Information Act, indicates that the very people who should have been looking out for Monnett may have been aligned with his detractors.

The alleged impropriety involves two government entities -- the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which is investigating Monnett, and the Office of Scientific Integrity (OSI), from which Monnett sought help. The latter is designed to block political interference, ensure a competent process of review, and ensure allegations of scientific misconduct are handled by independent investigators.

After he fell under scrutiny, Monnett complained to OSI that his employer BOEMRE and the OIG had improperly disrupted his work. After Monnett came forward, OSI told Monnett and PEER that it would look into his allegations. Yet in a letter sent weeks later to a U.S. Congressman, OSI officer Ralph Morganweck told Rep. Ed Markey last August that he would be “assisting the OIG in reviewing the scientific integrity claims that have been raised in this matter.” Had PEER never requested the correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act, it may never have learned about the tone of the discussions and allegiances taking place behind the scenes.

PEER executive director Jeff Ruch calls the situation “beyond screwy.”

“If there is no independence in these reviews, Interior’s scientific integrity process is simply an elaborate exercise in damage control,” he said in a prepared statement.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com