CLIMATE:

Interior IG keeps up probe of suspended biologist

Interior Department inspector general investigators yesterday continued to question a wildlife biologist about his 2006 paper on drowned polar bears.

The move led Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to renew its call for an end to what the group calls a "witch hunt."

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, is also asking for more details on the IG's investigation. In a letter yesterday to acting Inspector General Mary Kendall, Inhofe -- a global warming skeptic -- asked for clarification given the speculation surrounding Charles Monnett's suspension.

"With Dr. Monnett's research being the foundation of critical [Endangered Species Act] decisions connected to global warming, accusations against his work could be serious and have far reaching consequences," Inhofe wrote. "I am therefore requesting an explanation as soon as possible of how you became involved in this matter and I ask that you clarify the scope of your investigation."

PEER announced last month that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement had suspended Monnett, whose 2006 paper galvanized the global warming movement. The news prompted widespread debate over the purpose of the investigation and allegations that it is connected to plans to approve oil drilling in the Arctic reserve.

Interior officials have since said the investigation has nothing to do with Shell's Exploration Plan. And 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 Sources of Recruitment in Polar Bears: Movement Ecology in the Beaufort Sea."

But the exact thrust of the IG investigation is still being slowly revealed.

In a February interview, IG investigator Eric May told Monnett that the office "received some allegations pertaining to ... potential scientific misconduct," according to a transcript released by PEER. May then questioned Monnett on his 2006 observations, the publication of the paper in Polar Biology and his methods for tracking dead polar bears.

May conducted a second, three-hour interview yesterday and spent half the time on questions about the 2006 paper, according to PEER executive director Jeff Ruch, who was present at the interview and whose organization is legally representing Monnett. IG investigators appear to be probing a connection between the 2006 paper and the sole-source contract for the Alberta study, he said.

Researcher Andrew Derocher is conducting the Alberta study, which began before BOEMRE funded an expansion of the project through a sole-source contract. He is also a leading polar bear biologist and informally read a draft of Monnett's 2006 paper, according to Ruch.

The implication is that the contract sprang from favoritism born out of Derocher's feedback on the 2006 paper. But criminal investigators without scientific background should not be ruling on the scientific process, Ruch argued.

"Even this new contracting thing involves an allegation that Dr. Monnett was not faithfully monitoring the course of the study for reasons for favoritism, which is scientific misconduct," he said.

Ruch pointed out that after Derocher and other colleagues read the draft, the 2006 paper subsequently was approved by the management of BOEMRE -- then the Minerals Management Service -- and went through peer review before it was published.

The IG office declined to comment today on an ongoing investigation. But in a July 29 memo, May wrote that Monnett should be prepared to "address specific issues to include, but not limited to, compliance with the Federal Acquisition Regulations, disclosure of personal relationships and preparation of the scope of work."

Environmental groups are concerned that the investigation was prompted by complaints from global warming critics. PEER filed a complaint last month arguing that allegations of scientific misconduct must go through professional review.

"We will reinforce our call for Interior to follow its own rules on these matters and call off this ridiculous witch hunt," Ruch added. "One object lesson from this case is that scientists can be anonymously targeted for professional terrorism without recourse."

Last week, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity asked Interior to look into whether Monnett's suspension violated scientific integrity rules meant to protect research from political interference (Greenwire, Aug. 5).

But BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said last week 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," Schwartz said in an email. "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."

Click here to read Inhofe's letter.