Polar bear scientist transcript reveals bizarre nature of investigation

  • 04 Aug 2011, 13:42
  • Christian Hunt

The scientist whose work discovered polar bears drowning as a result of melting ice in the Arctic - spawning millions of cuddly climate change images - is being cross examined by criminal investigators five years after the study was published.

Dr Charles Monnett of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in the United States has been questioned by staff from the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Interior about whether he sighted three or four dead polar bears before his 2006 study.

Climate sceptics are already claiming the investigation reveals once again that the science of global warming is suspect, while his supporters fear Dr Monnett is victim of a "witch hunt" - he was suspended as BOEMRE considers permits for oil companies to expand drilling in Alaska.

The scientist was sent home on July 18 this year with the department citing "integrity issues" relating to his current $50 million study of polar bears. He returned to work on Monday.

A transcript of his initial interview in February, which we have edited and posted today shows that the investigators had a particular interest in the 2006 study and the number of polar bears. It appears they aimed to challenge the science behind the claim bears were dying as a result of climate change.

However, the transcript also shows Dr Monnett's belief that his own department did not want to find evidence of climate change damaging native species, and were hostile to the findings of the study.

This specific allegation come in the same month a report to the US Congress revealed that the Department of Interior was itself at "high risk" of fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. The US government has also failed to collect billions in royalties from oil companies, according to the Guardian.

The transcripts reveal that the investigators chosen to cross examine Dr Monnett have no scientific training, barely have "fifth grade maths" and are themselves confused about whether three or four polar bears were seen dead in the ocean.

Dr Monnett asks his inquisitors: "Okay, and, and just so I know how to put my answers, do you have scientific credentials of any sort?  Uh, what, what, what level of scientist am I speaking with here that's going to be evaluating my science?"

Eric May, one of the two interviewers answers: "No, we're criminal investigators". Dr Monnett responds, "I assume with no formal training in, in science or biology" and is told: "That's right."

Later in the interview, Dr Monnett states of his interlocutor, "somebody is deficient in fifth grade math." He adds: "Seriously. I mean, give me a break."

When asked what the investigation is focusing on, Mr May responds: "Well, the scientif- - well, scientific misconduct, basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh, miscalculations."

Dr Monnett replies: "Well, that's not scientific misconduct anyway.  If anything, it's sloppy.  I mean, that's not - I mean, I mean, the level of criticism that they seem to have leveled here, scientific misconduct, uh, suggests that we did something deliberately to deceive or to, to change it.  Um, I sure don't see any indication of that in what you're asking me about."  

Toward the end of the interview Dr Monnett directly responds to the implication that he would have been able to falsify data, suggesting that hostility to his work from within the department meant that the pressure was to downplay the impacts of climate change on the region.

Lynn Gibson from the department asks: "So what was your [management's] motivation to not want you to ensure that this was statistically correct, by doing all those things?  I mean, what - why?"

Dr Monnett answers: "Oh, you didn't want to get me started (laughing).  Well, why do you think?  They, they, they don't want any impediment to, um, you know, what they view as their mission, which is to, uh, you know, drill wells up there, I mean, and, you know, put areas into production.  

"The bowhead whale is extremely political, and the Native community is very powerful, and they're very concerned about, uh, you know, any impacts that we might have on the whale.  

"So what MMS has done has created, um, the perception that we're monitoring this, and we're finding negative results all the time, when I would argue we're not monitoring at all.  We're just doing this study."

The transcript appears to show evidence that an experienced and qualified scientist feels his work is being misrepresented by a government department to support the interests of the oil industry.

And yet climate skeptics have argued that Monnett's suspension somehow undermines the integrity of climate science, because the same government department has launched an investigation into the scientist the evidence of global warming must be in doubt. Ann Widdecombe wrote in her Express column yesterday: "That scientists are now being challenged is a sure sign that somebody somewhere knows they may have been getting it wrong."

A post at the Media Matters blog states the "conservative media have claimed that the case exposes 'the global warming fraud' and that polar bears are not threatened by climate change.

"In fact, extensive research establishes that polar bears are vulnerable to extinction due to decreasing sea ice, and human-induced global warming is supported by a robust body of evidence independent of any polar bear studies."

The US based National Wildlife Federation goes even further in a blog post by Miles Grant. He states: " Big Oil is using deceptive tactics to confuse the public about climate science. And this time, the attack threatens polar bears. We need your help to see through their smokescreen and to stand up for the truth."

It seems clear that further developments should be expected from this story.

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