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Advocacy groups fear fallout as biologist's suspension takes new twist

Earlier this week, the New York Post ran an article with the headline "Global Warming Theory Faces Sudden Collapse," basing its declaration on the recent suspension of the biologist who penned a paper on drowned polar bears that galvanized the global warming movement.

Other articles and blogs followed. One conservative blogger characterized biologist Charles Monnett's work as helping an "imaginary global warming crisis"; others published parts of Monnett's interview with investigators from the Department of Interior's inspector general, in which he explains the details on his 2006 study.

Since then, Interior officials have indicated that the investigation is focused not on Monnett's scientific work but on the procurement practices for a new study he helps manage. But advocacy groups are worried that such details will get lost in the flurry and that critics of global warming will use Monnett's suspension as a hit against irrefutable science.

"I think this is yet another example of polluter front groups taking any bit that they can and obviously basically anything that comes out to polluter front groups means global warming is false," said National Wildlife Federation spokesman Miles Grant. "A real question is, are a lot of groups attacking this study because they want to be drilling in the Arctic reserve?"

In 2006, Monnett, a wildlife biologist at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, published a paper with a colleague that reported their observation of drowned polar bears in open waters. The sighting led to further research on whether diminishing sea ice has led to longer swims and more deaths for the bears.

News broke last week that officials had suspended Monnett due to the inspector general's "ongoing inquiry" (Greenwire, Aug. 2). The details of that inquiry are still unclear; in an email to staff, BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich said officials were "limited in what we can say about a pending investigation."

"[B]ut I can assure you that the decision had nothing to do with his scientific work, or anything relating to a five-year-old journal article, as advocacy groups and the news media have incorrectly speculated," he wrote. "Nor is this a 'witch hunt' to suppress the work of our many scientists and discourage them from speaking the truth. Quite the contrary. In this case, it was the result of new information on a separate subject brought to our attention very recently."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility publicized the suspension, filing a scientific misconduct complaint on Monnett's behalf. Executive director Jeff Ruch said the group has been quietly representing Monnett for months, but the terms of his suspension and the mystery surrounding it left him no choice but to make it public.

Monnett was put on administrative leave -- and told not to talk to colleagues -- pending the completion of the IG investigation.

"For a scientist, being put on administrative leave -- he might as well have been shot and put in a coma," Ruch said. "We're fighting to rescue the rest of his career. Had we passively taken this, he would have been put on administrative leave with no opportunity to defend himself."

But BOEMRE was late to address the media's questions on the investigation, and the first stories in the Associated Press and The New York Times focused on Monnett's 2006 study. Earlier this week, PEER released a notice to Monnett from the IG's office that shed further light on the investigation; the notice told Monnett to expect questions on the procurement practices for a current study called "Populations and Sources of the Recruitment in Polar Bears."

But only a few news organizations picked up that story.

"I think openness is a good thing, and I wish BOEMRE has been quicker off the mark to state what this was and wasn't about," said Doug Inkley, a scientist with NWF, adding that such misinformation has been a problem in the past when scientists are investigated. "I certainly hope that by being open, we can avoid some of this problem."