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Polar bear scientist Dr Charles Monnett cleared of scientific misconduct

  • 01 Oct 2012, 16:00
  • Chris Peters

An investigation into US academic Dr Charles Monnett - the scientist whose work first highlighted polar bears drowning as a result of melting ice in the Arctic - wrapped up this week, clearing him of misconduct in his research activities.

Instead, Dr Monnett has received what appears to be a fairly minor reprimand for "improper release of government documents". The academic improperly forwarded official emails to a local government official and a fellow researcher at the University of Alaska without prior authorisation, the inquiry found. Some of the material disclosed by Monnett was subsequently used in court to force the Interior Department to revoke its approval of Shell's drilling plan.

Science on trial?

Monnett, of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in the US, was investigated by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the United States Department of the Interior. The investigation, which began in 2010, was related to charges of scientific misconduct around his 2006 study which linked drowned polar bears to ice loss in the Arctic.

Climate sceptic campaigners argued the investigation showed Monnet's research was suspect. Monnett's legal representatives at environmental whistleblower organisation Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, meanwhile, labelled the investigation a "witch hunt".

In February last year we put up an edited transcript of the initial hearing where Monnett was questioned by criminal investigators, revealing some particularly strange questions being put to the researcher.

When asked what the investigation is focusing on, one of the investigators 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."

Later in the interview, Dr Monnett states of his interlocutor, "somebody is deficient in fifth grade math."

Whistleblower

The transcript suggests Monnett felt his work was being misrepresented by a government department in order to support the interests of the oil industry. Toward the end of the interview Dr Monnett also suggests that hostility to his work from his government employers created pressure to downplay the impacts of climate change in the Arctic:

"...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."

Monnett's legal representative during the investigation, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), greeted the investigation's conclusion in typically bullish style. PEER executive director Jeff Ruch suggested that far from being reprimanded for his role in exposing his employer, "Monnett deserves a citation":

"We are amazed that Dr. Monnett would be reproved for revealing that his agency was wrongfully withholding information, [...]. For his actions, Chuck Monnett deserves a citation, not a reprimand. However if after years of investigation, these stale, stilted charges are the only things these jokers could dig up, Dr. Monnett must be an exemplary public servant".

This presumably marks the end of the issue. Last year, when this story first broke US organisation Media Matters noted that the "conservative media have claimed that the case exposes 'the global warming fraud' and that polar bears are not threatened by climate change."

It seems that, in the end, the investigation has concluded rather less.

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