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  Print view: Arctic Scientist Subjected To Smear Campaign and 'Fishing Expedition' Investigation by the Department of Interior

Defend Science Letter to Signatories:

Arctic Scientist Subjected To Smear Campaign and 'Fishing Expedition' Investigation by the Department of Interior

A recent NY Times editorial called the controversy around Charles Monnett's observations a “minor side-show in the global warming debate.” This badly misses the point that if we allow scientists to be mistreated this way it will have a chilling effect on all whose scientific results are “inconvenient truths.”

In 2006, Charles Monnett, one of the country's top Arctic scientists, co-authored a 7-page paper with Jeffrey Gleason reporting observations of polar bears that had drowned due to a combination of shrinking sea ice and severe storms. The article was peer-reviewed and published in the science journal “Polar Biology”. Shortly after, it went viral playing a role helping galvanize public awareness of the seriousness of global warming. Al Gore referenced it in his book “An Inconvenient Truth” and it received large press coverage.

Now Monnett is being persecuted, was suspended from his job and placed on administrative leave for weeks, forbidden to speak with co-workers and subjected to a on-going witch hunt by the federal agency he works for, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement or BOEMRE. In late August, he was called back to his job but stripped of his former responsibilities involving managing research contracts. A cloud of suspicion and innuendo has been deliberately kept hanging over his head. A spokeswoman for BOEMRE said “The return of an employee to work does not suggest that future administrative actions cannot/will not be taken.”

Through this ordeal Monnett has not been speaking to the press but his wife, Lisa Rotterman, a fellow scientist who worked with Monnett for years, including at BOEMRE's predecessor agency, said the case did not come out of the blue.

Rotterman said Monnett had come under fire in the past within the agency for speaking the truth about what the science showed. She said the 2006 article wasn't framed in the context of climate change but was relevant to the topic.

She feared what happened to Monnett would send a "chilling message" at the agency just as important oil and gas development decisions in the Arctic will soon be made.

“I don't believe the timing is coincidental,” she said. (And as this article was being written, Shell obtained initial federal approval to start drilling in the arctic regions.)

Rotterman said Monnett's work included identifying questions that needed to be answered to inform the environmental analyses the agency must conduct before issuing drilling permits.

"This is a time when sowing doubt in the public's mind about whether those findings can be trusted or not, that makes people think, I don't know what to believe," she said.

All this is reminiscent of the Bush administration's crude attacks on science.

Time-Line of a Fishing Expedition and Smear campaign

There has been a months-long ongoing investigation conducted by the Interior Department Inspector General. Initially, Dr. Monnett was not even informed what he was accused of beyond vague statements about “integrity issues”. The “focus” of this investigation was left wide open with room for a broad fishing expedition looking for any accusation that they could make stick.

The initial stages of the investigation were also quite brazen with little attempt to disguise the attempt to smear the scientific integrity of Monnett and the 2006 polar bear paper. A reading of the transcript of the first IG interview with Monnett shows that they are most definitely going after him due to the Polar bear paper, with criminal investigators having no scientific training conducting a fishing expedition into his scientific work and looking for anything they can accuse him with. To read the transcript of this first interview with the investigators, click here.

On July 29, with this phony “investigation” facing increasing public exposure and clearly stung by growing anger and protests in the scientific community, BOEMRE tried to cover itself, issuing a press statement stating “The agency placed Mr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article or issues related to permitting,” a reference to the bureau’s role in permitting offshore drilling.

But on the same day of this denial, July 29, the Inspector General's office sent Monnett a letter calling him in for a further round of questioning, stating that the interview "may include follow-up questions to your previous interview with the OIG regarding the integrity and representations or your official work." That letter also ominously said that the Justice Department had evaluated “his case” and declined to prosecute.

The next interview in this fishing expedition added more questioning about:

  • the peer review process of the 2006 Polar Bear study
  • how a contract for joint U.S./Canadian study of polar bears (tracking their movements from 2005 to 2012) was awarded.

This study is an important one focusing on the polar bears' changing behavior in the face of changes in the arctic environment caused by global warming – changes such as their habitat ranges moving south.

What they focused on ultimately was that Monnett (who served as a technical representative for the contracting officer who retained the ultimate authority to approve to project), provided some minor assistance to a Canadian scientist on the project in working through the complex forms required to be filled out for the project.

Monnett's lawyer has stated that

  • contact and sharing of information between Dr. Monnett and the University of Alberta were encouraged by the senior Contracting Officer and the Chief Scientist of BOEMRE, Dr. James Kendall
  • the rules about what kind of sharing of information between scientists in this kind of sole-source contract are far from clear – see this note of protest and support from one of Monnett's colleagues which makes it obvious how byzantine and not well understood these rules are.

In their clumsy zeal to go after and discredit Monnett and any scientific work he was connected with, BOEMRE management even issued a stop-work order on the ongoing US/Canadian Polar bear study on July 13 and then, again as outrage and protests against this mounted, they were forced to rescind the order two weeks later (Aug. 1).

Monnett, working with his lawyer, filed a Complaint of Scientific and Scholarly Misconduct against BOEMRE and its management for the way he has been mis-treated. And on August 8, the scientific integrity officer of the Department of the Interior announced they were launching an investigation into these allegations. Footnote 1

Not long after, Monnett received a letter ending his suspension. But he was informed that he would no longer have any role in developing or managing contracts. And, continuing their campaign of smears and unspecified ongoing threats against Monnett, a spokeswoman for BOEMRE added, “The return of an employee to work does not suggest that future administrative actions cannot/will not be taken.”

What stands out in all of this is how forces outside and, in this case, inside government agencies are moving to drag scientists through the muck of suspicion and innuendo, to attack science and academic freedom, to intimidate scientists by making demands for details of all aspects of their work, all their communications, all drafts of their papers, who they work with, etc, all in the name of “open-ness”. This affair has many frightening similarities with how Michael Mann and other climate scientists were attacked during the so-called “climate-gate” affair.

A recent NY Times editorial called the controversy around Charles Monnett's observations a “minor side-show in the global warming debate”. This badly misses the point that if we allow scientists to be mistreated this way it will have a chilling effect on all whose scientific results are “inconvenient truths”. And this will have a very bad effect, not only on the crucial need to resolve the global warming debate based on an understanding of the world as it really is but also on scientific and critical thinking more generally.

Defend Science

Footnote 1: It is BOEMRE That Should Be The Target of Investigation

This BOEMRE is really the one that should be the target of investigation for corruption and attacks on scientists and scientific integrity. This group – most notably its Alaska office where Monnett works - has a long documented track record of suppressing environmental scientists, their work and their findings, particularly any findings that might cause them any difficulties in giving the green light to more oil drilling. The BOEMRE is one part of what was formerly the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the agency whose notoriety became such a public embarrassment during the Gulf Oil Spill that the Obama administration was forced to re-organize it breaking it up into 3 groups, one of which is now BOEMRE.

A General Accounting Office (GAO) report on MMS issued in 2010 confirmed many scientists‚ accounts that were channeled through Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) that Interior managers routinely “suppressed” critical findings on issues ranging from the likelihood of oil spills to acoustic damage to whales to introduction of invasive species. The GAO report made several critical findings, including:

  • Management pressure resulted in scientific reviews of the environmental impacts of Alaskan offshore oil drilling that were so incomplete that they have been largely invalidated in court rulings in lawsuits brought by environmentalists;
  • Scientists were under pressure to churn out reviews that omitted important environmental concerns. In reaction, many scientists left the Alaska OCS Office of the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency issuing offshore drilling permits. “From 2003 to 2008, 11 to 50 percent of the analysts in that section left each year,” according to the report; and
  • Interior officials allowed scientists access to project data only on a “need to know” basis in order to protect what they believed to be the proprietary nature of oil industry information.

The culture of arrogance, impunity and deference to the needs of oil drilling above all else running through this organization was such that during the time when the Interior Department was claiming to “generally agree with the findings” of this GAO report and vowing improvements (2010), John Goll, the head of the Alaska region, called an “all hands” meeting at which a cake was served decorated with the words, “Drill, Baby, Drill”.

In the United States today science, as science, is under attack as never before, mostly from uninformed evangelical organizations. Defend Science is an activist group to defend against illogical suppression of scientific research.

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This story was published on September 6, 2011.


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