Arctic scientist suspended over 'integrity issues'
US environmental bureau denies claim that Charles Monnett's suspension is linked to his work with polar bears
By Suzanne Goldenberg
29 July 2011
Monnett's findings into the threat to polar bears is under review. Photograph: Subhankar Banerjee/AP
The official overseeing offshore oil drilling in Alaska said that a top Arcticscientist was suspended for "integrity issues" outside his work on polar bears.
Charles Monnett, a US government wildlife biologist who first exposed the threat to polar bears posed by melting sea ice, was suspended on 18 July.
His defence team – which was not told of the specific allegations against Monnett – said his suspension may be linked to a months-old investigation into potential scientific misconduct in his work on polar bears.
But Michael Bromwich, who heads the government agency where Monnett works, told staff in an email that the suspension was due to entirely different issues of integrity that came to light during the course of the investigation.
Earlier, an official from Bromwich's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Enforcement and Regulation told The Guardian in an email: "The agency placed Mr Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity." The agency said Monnett's suspension had nothing to do with his work on polar bears.
It also denied suggestions that Monnett, who managed about $50m (£30.5m) in government research projects in the Arctic, was being sidelined to speed the way for offshore oil drilling.
Monnett's suspension has produced sharply different reactions. Commentators on Fox television cite the incident to try to discredit the science on climate change.
Monnett's defenders meanwhile say he is being subject to a smear campaign.
Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is serving as Monnett's legal team, suggested Monnett's work was being put under a microscope at the behest of oil companies pushing to drill in the Arctic.
"I think it's an excuse to shut down the science shop," Ruch said on Friday.
Documents suggest investigators are reviewing Monnett's research methods as well as the significance he attached to his discovery in 2004 of polar bear carcasses in the Arctic.
But investigators from the office of the inspector general at the US department of the interior told him, during a formal interview last February, that they were homing in on his methodology, a transcript of the session shows. "Basically wrong numbers, miscalculations," one of the investigators, Eric May, told Monnett during the formal interview.Monnett protested. "That's not scientific misconduct. If anything it's sloppy," the transcript quotes him as saying. "Scientific misconduct suggests that we did something deliberately to deceive or to change it. I sure don't see any indication of that in what you're asking me about."
Monnett was on a research flight tracking bowhead whales in 2004 when he and a colleague, Jeff Gleason, spotted four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm. It was the first time government scientists had recorded drowning deaths of polar bears, Monnett told investigators.
He and Gleason published their observations in 2006 in the journal Polar Biology. The paper used the number of polar bear carcasses observed on the flight to suggest 25% of bears had drowned swimming between solid sheets of ice. They wrote: "Drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open water periods continues."
Monnett told the investigators he was cautious in his framing of the polar bear event – given the prevailing views of the then George Bush administration.
"We work for an agency that is, especially then, extremely hostile to the concept of climate change, that's hostile to the idea that there was any effects of anything we do on anything," he is quoted as saying. Elsewhere in the interview transcripts, investigators ask Monnett how he was able to clearly identify dead polar bears from the air, how he conducted his calculations, and how he could be certain such deaths did not occur on a regular basis.
In their interview with Gleason, conducted in January, the investigators went over the methods for spotting and recording animals. They noted that the scientists took photos of only one of the dead polar bears. Monnett told the investigators he had spoken to a colleague who had overseen whale survey flights from 1987-2003. The colleague reportedly told Monnett he did not remember seeing dead polar bears on those trips. Gleason, in his interview, told investigators he had consulted a data base which showed no record of polar bear drowning going back 30 years.