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Suspended Polar Bear Researcher Defended by Advocates

29 July 2011 5:16 pm
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Scott Schliebe/USFWS

Veteran wildlife researcher Charles Monnett, whose 2006 paper suggesting that polar bears may be drowning due to melting sea ice was featured in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, has been suspended by his employer, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), pending an Inspector General's investigation into undisclosed "integrity issues." No one in the U.S. government is detailing those issues, and BOEMRE won't allow Monnett to speak to the media, but the disclosure has generated a firestorm on the blogosphere as climate change skeptics are wildly speculating about scientific misconduct in regard to Monnet's polar bear work.

The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has taken up Monnett's cause, calling the apparently criminal investigation a politically-motivated "witch hunt" against a scientist whose research threatens the government's ability to drill in the Arctic. Yesterday, PEER filed a "Complaint of Scientific and Scholarly Misconduct" with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), demanding that BOEMRE reinstate Monnett and apologize.

PEER's complaint framed Monnett's suspension as a Kafkaesque nightmare in which Monnett, who until his suspension was managing $50 million in federal funds for scientific research at BOEMRE, was placed on administrative leave by the regional director without being told the reason. In the transcript of the DOI inspector general's February interview of Monnett, the investigator says that the office had received "allegations of scientific misconduct." The investigators proceeded to grill Monnett on the methodology and statistics used in the peer-reviewed paper in Polar Biology he co-authored with Jeffrey Gleason (who is not under investigation)—Monnett countered that the investigators didn't understand fifth-grade math or the peer review process. Scientific misconduct, the inspector said when asked, was "basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh, miscalculations," Monnett rejected that characterization, saying that's "not scientific misconduct anyway. If anything, it's sloppy."

But whether the 2006 paper is even involved in the suspension remains unclear. BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz says that the proceedings have nothing to do with "scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged" and regard an unrelated matter.

Other scientists, impressed with Monnett's work, are also unsure where any allegations of a lack of scientific integrity could have arisen. In an e-mail to ScienceInsider, Ian Stirling, a polar bear researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada, calls the 2006 paper a "very valuable observation … properly written up and published in a respected peer reviewed journal". Monnett and Gleason had observed four dead bears floating in open water in 2004, a phenomenon never before seen despite 16 years of observations, and concluded that they had drowned. Melting sea ice and windstorms that increased swim distance, they suggested in the paper, might be a cause.

Al Gore's movie, Stirling feels, overinterpreted Monnett's observations. "I still think it is a good piece of work, puts a limited number of observations in a solid context, does not overinterpret, and does not say this was caused by climate change." Phillip Clapham, a cetacean biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Mammal Laboratory who has worked extensively with Monnett, says that he and others "never had any reason to question his scientific judgment as anything other than excellent. If he's replaced permanently, then it's a loss of experience and scientific knowledge."

Despite PEER's call for reinstatement, other scientist advocacy groups have been more circumspect. Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the AP that she's "not alarmed by the handling of the case so far" and that PEER's allegations are "premature." Everyone "should wait to see what, if anything, comes of the inspector general's investigation," she added.

But in the meantime, the incident has been widely picked up by the climate change denial movement as evidence of more scientific misconduct by climate scientists. (Predictably, it has already been christened "Polarbeargate.")

Still, the polar bear may survive as the fluffy white posterchild for climate change. Monnett's paper nonwithstanding, "I think the evidence is very, very strong that global warming and sea ice loss will have a serious effect on polar bears," says Jack Lentfer, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service polar bear scientist and consultant for the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. Scientists have decades of data documenting the bears, and Lentfer says that the bears' weights have been dropping over the past 25 years, indicating that they're having trouble hunting seals on sea ice. And the number of polar bears in the southern edge of their range, the Hudson Bay, have drastically decreased as sea ice is present for shorter and shorter amounts of time, he notes.

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