SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY:

Enviros raise concerns about political interference, Arctic drilling permits in scientist's suspension

Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity have asked the Department of the Interior to look into whether the recent suspension of a biologist violates rules meant to protect scientific research from political interference.

The news of the suspension has prompted widespread debate, with environmental groups alleging a connection to plans to drill oil in the Arctic reserve.

Charles Monnett was suspended last month amid an investigation launched by Interior's inspector general. A wildlife biologist at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, Monnett was co-author of a 2006 paper on drowned polar bears that helped galvanize the global warming movement.

The exact purpose of the investigation is unclear. Interior officials say the investigation has nothing to do with Monnett's scientific integrity, and documents from the IG suggest it is related to procurement procedures.

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."

But that has not convinced some advocacy groups, which suspect the suspension is related to Monnett's importance in the global warming movement.

In their letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies and CBD Senior Counsel Kassie Siegel pointed to Interior's decision yesterday to grant Shell approval to begin exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

BOEMRE, they wrote, "seems determined to restrict scientists from engaging in or disseminating research that provides critical information on the potential impacts of oil drilling in a rapidly changing Arctic."

Davies and Siegel also claim that the investigation violates the spirit of President Obama's 2009 executive order on scientific integrity, which directed agencies to develop policies to prohibit political interference in research. They point to the transcript of Monnett's interview with IG investigators, in which he was asked about his 2006 research. Publicized by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the transcript reveals a seemingly tense interview in which Monnett explains the math behind his calculations.

"Based on the transcript of that interview, it appears that Dr. Monnett is himself being subjected to precisely the type of political interference in his work that the Executive Order and scientific integrity policy are designed to prevent," they wrote. "This apparent interference is originating not only from the IG, which has sent agents with no scientific training to ask decidedly unscientific questions about bizarre allegations relating to the polar bear paper, but also, as it emerged during the interview, from BOEMRE managers themselves."

The groups are requesting copies of any correspondence between BOEMRE and Shell on Monnett and his research.

In a recent email to employees on the news surrounding Monnett's suspension, BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich lamented the "people and groups who are all-too-ready to criticize the Alaska Regional Office -- and our agency generally -- in the service of specific agendas."

"We have worked hard over the past year to continue to build trust with the various stakeholders and constituencies -- to persuade them we will make decisions based on the best scientific information available," he wrote. "It is a sign of the work that remains to be done that so many individuals and groups were ready to criticize us without any knowledge of the facts that led to the decision -- and without asking about them."

Click here to read Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity's letter to Salazar.