Washington, DC — The Interior Department Office of Inspector General (IG) interviewed new witnesses this week in its long-running investigation into a 2006 peer-reviewed journal article on drowned polar bears. The seemingly interminable probe also leaves Interior scientists fearful about career risks they face in overseeing Arctic research contracts, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
By its admission, the Interior IG began its probe in March 2010. More than two years later, it is still seeking insight into the Bowhead Whale Aerial Survey Project (BWASP) now operated by the National Marine Mammal Lab within the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. It was during such an aerial survey in 2004 that Drs. Charles Monnett and Jeffrey Gleason observed drowned polar bears in open Arctic waters, which led them to author a short article in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology.
Per an email from Special Agent Eric May, which PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the IG is looking into the 30-year database of BWASP observations with special focus on the 2007 transition of the survey from Interior to the Marine Mammal Lab. In addition, the IG wants “to determine if dead polar bears were documented in the BWASP database between 1987- 2003” in an apparent attempt to show that sightings of four drowned polar bears following a storm in 2004 was not remarkable.
“The lengths of this probe strongly suggest a vendetta rather than a fair-minded inquiry,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization provides legal representation to both Drs. Monnett and Gleason. “Though I did not think it was possible, this fishing expedition has managed to become even more attenuated and absurd.”
The Marine Mammal Lab originally demurred on the IG request for further interviews, pointing out that all of the data had been retrieved, copied and sent back to Interior in 2011. The IG apparently is still seeking assistance on how to unravel decades of BWASP data. PEER has filed a formal complaint that any such review should be done by knowledgeable scientists rather than untrained criminal investigators.
The intrusive IG involvement has made scientists leery of criminalizing the peer review process in publishing research. It has also made scientists who are overseeing research contracts uneasy, as well. One side-street of the IG investigation looked at a polar bear study by the University of Alberta. The IG raised issues about how the scientific merits of contracts were reviewed and approved.
Colleagues defended Dr. Monnett’s actions in the Alberta study and in overseeing a sizeable portfolio of Arctic research. They confronted then-Bureau of Ocean Energy Management & Enforcement (BOEM) Michael Bromwich in asking him to provide some clarity. Bromwich asked for a review which came back to him in late October 2011. That review found “inconsistent guidance”, unclear delegation of authority, fear of signing invoices and a host of other impediments to a robust science program unresolved. Bromwich, who just opened a “crisis management” firm, left without addressing any of the requested reforms, leaving problems to fester from continued inattention.
“This seemingly endless review has needlessly disrupted the lives of the affected scientists and their work,” added Ruch, noting that the IG has consistently refused to lay out specific charges for the scientists to rebut. “If the Office of Inspector General cannot come to a point after more than two years, how many more years will it take to wrap this up?”
See the IG questions for NOAA lab
Read the October IG interview with Dr. Gleason
Revisit memo stating that Dr. Monnett’s actions are standard procedure
View memo outlining continued uncertainty in Arctic research contracting
Track the last two years of IG “investigation”