JUNEAU — A federal wildlife biologist whose observation that polar bears likely drowned in the Arctic helped galvanize the global warming movement during the last decade was placed on administrative leave while officials investigate scientific misconduct allegations.
While it wasn’t clear what the exact allegations are, a government watchdog group representing Anchorage-based scientist Charles Monnett said investigators have focused on his 2006 journal article about the bears that garnered worldwide attention.
The group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, filed a complaint on Monnett’s behalf Thursday with the agency, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
BOEMRE told Monnett on July 18 that he was being put on leave, pending an investigation into “integrity issues.” The investigator has not yet told him of the specific charges or questions related to the scientific integrity of his work, said Jeff Ruch, the watchdog group’s executive director.
A BOEMRE spokeswoman, Melissa Schwartz, acknowledged there was an “ongoing internal investigation” but declined to get into specifics about it.
Whatever the outcome or the nature of the allegations, the investigation could fuel the ongoing fight between climate change activists and those who are skeptical of scientists’ findings about global warming. The probe also focuses attention on an Obama administration policy intended to protect scientists from political interference.
Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, could not speak directly to Monnett’s case but said he believes the public has a right to be skeptical about scientific claims related to global warming.
Even if every scientist is objective, “what we’re being asked to do is turn our economy around and spend trillions and trillions of dollars on the basis of claims about what’s going to happen to the climate,” he said, adding later: “If global warming really takes hold here in the next few years and bad things start to happen, then we can act. But right now, I think we should just be sitting on our hands, observing.”
The complaint seeks Monnett’s reinstatement and a public apology from the agency and inspector general, whose office is conducting the probe. The group’s filing also seeks to have the investigation dropped or to have the charges specified and the matter carried out quickly and fairly, as the Obama policy states.
BOEMRE has barred Monnett from speaking to reporters, Ruch said.
Monnett could not immediately be reached Thursday.
His wife, a fellow scientist, Lisa Rotterman, who answered the phone at their home, said the case did not come out of the blue, that Monnett had come under fire in the past within the agency for speaking the truth about what the science showed, and she feared what happened to him would send a “chilling message” within the agency at a time when important oil and gas development decisions in the Arctic will soon be made.
BOEMRE was created last year in the reorganization of the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which oversaw offshore drilling. The MMS was abolished after the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The agency was accused of being too close to oil and gas industry interests.
Monnett, who has coordinated much of BOEMRE’s research on Arctic wildlife and ecology, has duties that include managing about $50 million worth of studies, according to the complaint. Schwartz, who’s based in Washington, D.C., said other agency scientists would manage the studies in Monnett’s absence.
According to documents provided by Ruch’s group, which sat in on investigators interviews with Monnett, the questioning focused on observations that Monnett and fellow researcher Jeffrey Gleason made in 2004.
At the time, they were conducting an aerial survey of bowhead whales, and saw four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm. They detailed their observations in an article published two years later in the journal Polar Biology.
In the peer-reviewed article, they said they were reporting, to the best of their knowledge, the first observations of polar bears floating dead offshore and presumed drowned while apparently swimming long distances in open water.
Polar bears are considered strong swimmers, they wrote, but long-distance swims may exact a greater metabolic toll than standing or walking on ice in better weather.
They said their observations suggested the bears drowned in rough seas and high winds. They also added that the findings “suggest that 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.”
The article and presentations drew national attention and helped make the polar bear a symbol for the global warming movement. Former vice president and climate change activist Al Gore mentioned the animal in his Oscar-winning global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The complaint said agency officials harassed Gleason and Monnett, and that they received negative comments after the journal article. Gleason took another Interior Department job; he didn’t respond to an email and a BOEMRE spokeswoman said he wouldn’t be available for comment.
In May 2008, the polar bear was classified as a threatened species, the first with its survival at risk due to global warming.
Since then, the fight between climate change activists and skeptics has intensified. In 2009, skeptics seized on some 1,000 stolen emails that showed prominent scientists stonewalling critics and discussing ways to keep opponents research out of peer-reviewed journals.
They claimed the emails as proof that the global warming threat was hyped. Several reviews have since vindicated the researchers’ science, although some of their practices — in particular efforts to hide data from critics — were criticized.
Ruch said that criminal investigators with no scientific background are handling Monnett’s case, even though it is an administrative matter.
According to a transcript, provided by Ruch’s group, Ruch asked investigator Eric May, during questioning of Monnett in February, for specifics about the allegations. May replied: “well, scientific misconduct, basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh, miscalculations.”
Monnett said that alleging scientific misconduct “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.”