Washington, DC — A controversial investigation into polar bear research has ended but its main findings and recommendations have been rejected by the federal agency to which it was submitted, according to documents posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The investigation grew out of an attempt to stop releases of internal information that undermined plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin oil and gas operations in Arctic waters.
The Interior Office of Inspector General (IG) “Investigative Report” was issued late on Friday, September 28th, hours after many news deadlines, a practice known as “putting out the trash.” The report was submitted more than three months ago to the Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM), which employs the scientist, Dr. Charles Monnett, who was the probe’s principal subject. The investigation began in March 2010 when “a career U.S. Department of Interior employee” anonymously alleged that Dr. Monnett had engaged in scientific misconduct to further an environmental agenda.
Significantly, the main allegations about fabricated data and falsified photographs of drowned polar bears proved to be utterly untrue. Apparently undeterred by the unreliability of its informant, the IG enlarged the investigation to veer in many directions including international research.
“This report reads like Nixon’s infamous Plumbers’ Unit merged with the Keystone Kops,” remarked PEER Executive Jeff Ruch, whose organization is providing legal representation for Dr. Monnett. “The weirdest aspect was the IG’s thoroughly misguided attempt to connect marine mammal research to a dark environmental conspiracy, including gossip about Al Gore.”
The report addresses three very different topics but in each omitted any countervailing facts:
- Peer review journal article on observations of drowned polar bears. Despite quibbling about how data were recorded, there is ample evidence the drowned bears were sighted (the IG suggests that, if anything, the number of “floaters” was underestimated – which undercuts its confusing, turgid critique of the paper). The report claims Dr. Monnett used an incomplete data set but fails to find a more complete set. BOEM rejected any conclusion that whatever the IG found constituted “scientific misconduct.” The article has never been publicly questioned by scientists;
- Procurement irregularities involving a University of Alberta research project on polar bears. The IG report reflects that procurement officers could not even agree among themselves what the rules were. The IG instead relies on procurement officers who self-protectively blamed scientists, not themselves, for any infractions. Finally, BOEM rejected that IG findings merited any action against scientists. In fact, BOEM says it has now reformed procurement practices to address uncertainties although it has not explained just what those reforms are; and
- Improper disclosures. Last Friday, Dr. Monnett received a letter of reprimand, the lowest level of discipline, for a series of five emails allegedly transmitted to outside individuals in 2007 and 2008. Ironically, the IG details how this was known back in 2008 but the agency did nothing since high-level review “determined that there was no clear course of disciplinary action.” It is unclear why there is a clear course for disciplinary action, however mild, four years later.
“Given the time and expense incurred, we should have expected a balanced, insightful investigation but what ultimately emerged is a largely incoherent, one-sided indictment,” Ruch added, noting that the IG criminal investigators displayed little grasp of the scientific information, concepts and practices they attempted to criticize. “This episode is a horror story that should never be repeated. It underscores the urgent need for new leadership in Interior’s Office of Inspector General.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Monnett has been restored to scientific duties after being detailed for the past year to other work pending completion of the IG investigation. He still awaits the outcome of his complaint that this investigation and how it was mishandled violates Interior Department scientific integrity rules. Notably, the IG has declared its staff exempt from Interior scientific integrity rules.