Last month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) suspended wildlife biologist Charles Monnett, who is being investigated by the Department of Interior’s (DOI’s) inspector general (IG). Monnett is the lead author of a 2006 study (linking loss of Arctic sea ice to the first documented finding of drowned polar bears. The paper helped galvanize support for DOI’s listing of the bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Al Gore touted the study in An Inconvenient Truth.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) condemned the IG investigation as a “witch hunt” (Greenwire, Aug. 10, 2011, subscription required). Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Greenpeace sent a letter to DOI Secretary Ken Salazar accusing BOEMRE of trying to muzzle scientists whose research may impede the granting of permits to drill for oil and gas in the bear’s Arctic habitat.
The transcript of the IG’s February 23, 2011 interrogation of Monnett shows that the IG “sent agents with no scientific training to ask decidedly unscientific questions about bizarre allegations relating to the polar bear paper,” CBD and Greenpeace contend. I can’t help but agree. What’s going on?
DOI officials say the investigation has nothing to do with drilling permits or the scientific integrity of Monnett’s research. As Greenwire reported last week:
BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz in an email said that the investigation has nothing to do with drilling. “There is absolutely no connection between any aspect of our review and approval of Shell’s Exploration Plan and Dr. Charles Monnett,” she said. “As we stated last week, the agency placed Dr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong.”
According to yesterday’s Greenwire, “a leaked memo to Monnett from the IG referenced possible procurement violations related to an ongoing study at the University of Alberta called Populations and Source of Recruitment in Polar Bears: Movement Ecology in the Beaufort Sea.”
But during the Feb. 23 interrogation, the IG agents do not discuss procurement issues. Rather, they claim to be investigating “allegations of scientific misconduct,” which one agent describes as “basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh miscalculations” (p. 83). Most of the questions relate to the polar bear study — the Monnett team’s observational M.O., their data, and assumptions.
I see no signs of scientific misconduct in Monnett’s study, and the Feb. 23 interview brought none to light. Monnett and his team observed four drowned bears after an abrupt wind storm, three within the “transect” surveyed by their aircraft. Since the transect covers one-nineth (11%) of the total study area (640 square kilometers), the team concluded it is “likely that many other bears also drowned but were not seen.” How many? Well, 9 x 3 = 27.
This is the source of Al Gore’s claim, in An Inconvenient Truth (p. 146), that “A new scientific study shows that, for the first time, polar bears have been drowning in significant numbers.” Gore, naturally, indulges in rhetorical license. ”Shows” suggests empirical proof. Monnett’s team made clear that a “likely” body count of 27 drowned bears depends on the assumption that the transect they surveyed was typical of the larger study area. “Have been drowning” suggests an ongoing process. Monnett’s team observed four drowned bears on one day in September 2004.
Surely it was inevitable that zealots like Gore would ignore the qualifications and exaggerate the certainity and magnitude of the drowning polar bear problem. Maybe Monnett hoped this would happen. Nonetheless, it is not scientific misconduct to present research that politicians and activists exploit for their own agendas. This was in fact the first recorded observation of drowned polar bears. It coincided with the biggest decline in polar sea ice coverage during the study period (1979-2004). It was worth reporting in a scientific study, and scientists are supposed to draw properly caveated inferences from what they observe.
Could BOEMRE or DOI’s IG be a hotbed of climate change skeptics or a cabal of “drill baby drill” advocates out to punish Monnett for his influential polar bear study? I have no idea. This much is abundantly clear:
- The IG agents’ claim to be investigating “allegations of scientific misconduct” flatly contradicts the DOI spokesperson’s claim that the investigation has “nothing to do with scientific integrity.”
- The IG agents in the Feb. 23 interview bumble and stumble over basic algebra and utterly fail to reveal evidence of scientific misconduct.
- If the transcript is indicative of the larger IG investigation, we may infer that Monnett is “likely” a target of political harassment.
- If that proves to be the case, climate change skeptics, many of whom have been on the receiving end of threats and bullying, should roundly condemn the abuse.