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Scientist Alleges Persecution By Department Of Interior

July 29, 2011

A federal scientist under internal investigation, apparently over a study on polar bear deaths that was cited by Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth”, went on the offensive Thursday, filing a complaint alleging persecution from within the Interior Department, MSNBC is reporting.

Charles Monnett, Anchorage-based scientist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), had earlier been questioned by investigators about the study he co-authored and was then placed on administrative leave.

The complaint alleges that Interior Department “officials have actively persecuted Dr. Monnett, acted on hearsay and rumors, gratuitously tarnished his reputation and substantially disrupted important scientific research.”

Coordinating much of the agency’s research on Arctic wildlife and ecology, Monnett has duties that include managing about $50 million worth of studies, according to the complaint, a copy of which was provided to the Associated Press (AP).

The complaint seeks the biologist’s reinstatement along with a public apology from the agency and inspector general. It also seeks to have the investigation dropped or to have the charges specified and the matter carried out in accordance with policy.

The complaint specifically alleges that Monnett’s boss, ocean agency Director Michael Bromwich, and investigator Eric May committed scientific and scholarly misconduct.

The complaint also says that investigators took Monnett’s computer hard drive, notebooks and other unspecified items from him, which have yet to be returned.

Investigators questioned Monnett in February about a peer-reviewed 2006 study, according to the complaint, which included a partial transcript of questions and answers that centered around how he and another scientist reached the conclusion that increasing polar bear deaths were tied to shrinking sea ice in the Arctic.

Similar studies highlighted a correlation between shrinking sea ice and polar bear deaths have since been peer reviewed and published and earlier this month, scientists reported polar bear cubs swimming longer distances than other cubs appear to have a higher mortality rate.

Monnett is being supported in his complaint by the activist group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), suggesting that the agency was being pressured by oil companies seeking to drill farther out at sea in the Arctic.

“Ever since this paper was published, Dr. Monnett has been subjected to escalating official harassment,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. “This is a cautionary tale with a deeply chilling message for any federal scientist who dares to publish ground breaking research on conditions in the Arctic.”

Beginning the entire controversy was after Monnett, on a research flight tracking bowhead whales in 2004. He and his colleagues spotted four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm. The scientists concluded the bears, though typically strong swimmers, had grown exhausted and drowned due to the long distances between patches of solid sea ice.

It was the first time scientists had drawn a link between melting Arctic sea ice and a threat to the bears’ survival.

Two years later, Monnett and a colleague published an article in the science journal Polar Biology, writing, “Drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open water periods continues.”

Al Gore cited the popular study and used polar bear footage in his film Inconvenient Truth. Campaigners focused on the bears to push George Bush to act on climate change, and in 2008, the government designated the animal a threatened species. It was the first animal to be classed as a victim of climate change.

In 2010 the Obama administration began an investigation into his work and the scientist was suspended with pay on July 18. He is said to be under a gag order and forbidden from communicating with his colleagues, The Guardian reports.

The employee group’s complaint alleges that the investigation is a thinly veiled attempt to disrupt scientific work on the Arctic.

Oil companies, wanting to drill in the pristine environment of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, have been complaining of delays caused by environmental reviews. This month Obama issued an order to speed up Arctic drilling permits.

A spokeswoman for BOEMRE, said the government would continue to carry out research on the potential impacts of Arctic drilling, despite Monnett’s suspension.

Other organizations also accused the government agency of a long record of meddling in science. A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office found huge gaps in BOEMRE’s research on the impacts of drilling in the Arctic.

The Alaska Wilderness League stated, “Alaska BOEMRE has continued to ignore science and traditional knowledge in its decision-making about oil and gas development.”

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