29 July 2011

Scientists: You Are No Longer Politically Useful

[UPDATED 8/1: I've clarified the sentence below about Monnett's statement about "sloppy" research, thanks to the readers in the comments.]

Charles Monnett is a a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in the US Department of the Interior. He has published in the peer-reviewed literature on polar bears. He also has just been suspended by the agency (PDF) under claims of possible scientific misconduct related to his polar bear research and was recently  interviewed by criminal investigators.

The Guardian reports that the timing is suspicious due to forthcoming DOI action on oil drilling in the Arctic:
It was seen as one of the most distressing effects of climate change ever recorded: polar bears dying of exhaustion after being stranded between melting patches of Arctic sea ice.

But now the government scientist who first warned of the threat to polar bears in a warming Arctic has been suspended and his work put under official investigation for possible scientific misconduct.

Charles Monnett, a wildlife biologist, oversaw much of the scientific work for the government agency that has been examining drilling in the Arctic. He managed about $50m (£30.5m) in research projects.

Some question why Monnett, employed by the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, has been suspended at this moment. The Obama administration has been accused of hounding the scientist so it can open up the fragile region to drilling by Shell and other big oil companies.

"You have to wonder: this is the guy in charge of all the science in the Arctic and he is being suspended just now as an arm of the interior department is getting ready to make its decision on offshore drilling in the Arctic seas," said Jeff Ruch, president of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "This is a cautionary tale with a deeply chilling message for any federal scientist who dares to publish groundbreaking research on conditions in the Arctic."
The spectacle of a government scientist being queried by criminal investigators is pretty chilling, and evocative of the same sort of ham-handed behavior by the Bush Administration.  While Monnett admits  argues that if the investigators apparent allegations were correct he would only be guilty of to doing sloppy research (PDF), it appears that neither he nor anyone else has been provided with information on what exactly he has been charged with related to scientific misconduct.

However this situation is resolved -- whether there is actual misconduct or it is a politically motivated harassment, both or neither -- the handling of this case is not a high point for the Obama Administration's efforts to "restore scientific integrity." More amazing is that as of this writing the entire liberal blogosphere (OK, Mother Jones just put up a post as I have been drafting this) that was so agitated about a "war on science" during the Bush Administration has thus far ignored this case. One can imagine what would have been the reaction had this occurred in 2006.

For scientists, the lesson here should be clear -- your status with partisans is a function of your perceived usefulness to their political agenda of the day.


  1. Don't know anything about the "integrity" issues, but the quality of the 'science' is so bad it's scary. If this is what the consensus is based on, we can see why climate scientists fight so hard against audit, replication or transparency.

  2. -1-Stan

    Thanks for the comment ... issues of the scientific quality of a particular study are of course well worth debating, but they should not be confused with allegations of scientific misconduct or the suspension of government scientists. This post is about the latter, and since the author of the study has admitted to being "sloppy" the former is not at issue here.


  3. Thanks for posting this Roger. Read about it yesterday but hadn't seen the transcript. pretty bizzare, as seen here:

    "CHARLES MONNETT: 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: No, we‟re criminal investigators.

    CHARLES MONNETT: Criminal investigators.

    ERIC MAY: With the Inspector General‟s Office.

    LYNN GIBSON: Right.

    CHARLES MONNETT: So I assume with no formal training in, in science or biology or –

    LYNN GIBSON: That‟s correct.

    ERIC MAY: That‟s right.

    CHARLES MONNETT: – marine, marine biology inaudible/mixed 22 voices).

    LYNN GIBSON: That‟s correct.

  4. Inspectors General are supposed to be creatures of Congress, as part of their oversight of the executive. Their relationship with the executive is, therefore, often somewhat strained. Sort of like the Internal Affairs part of police departments (at least, in fiction).

    In any case, it seems like if a lot of effort was being expended to make a big decision, you'd want the factors to be looked at closely.

    While the IGs are technically criminal investigators, they also look into all sorts of misconduct. I know Roger has "defended" academic fudging in the past, and many seemed (myself included) to think that sometimes, academic ethics may be more squishy than is good for them. But would that necessarily cover activities for government? Or any other employer-employee relationship? My job would be a lot easier if I could just ignore or apologize for past mistakes or carelessness and move along like nothing happened.

    As to the politics...how would you implicate Obama in advocating for more drilling? Is this him trying to salvage the economy on the down low or something?

    Not sure how chilling this would really be, right after we find out that more federal employees die than are fired.

  5. And the festival of pearl clutching by fossil fuel whores begins in 3.....2....1...

  6. So what is the Obama administration meant to do if it does find something that looks like misconduct? Wave it away, in case they are accused of fighting "a war on science"?

    If you don't investigate and punish for misconduct then your scientific outputs are going to be riddled with fraud. It's not like fake results aren't common enough with punishment. That means some scientists will be investigated from time to time.

    How about we see if the allegations are worthy of investigating before we leap in with things being "pretty chilly"?

  7. Just because you cop to being 'sloppy,' that doesn't mean that you haven't been dishonest. That's just your side of the story.

    Could we wait and find out the facts before anything is ruled out?

  8. Roger, the reactionary defense of scientists no matter what is not very becoming.
    Not accepting the idea that public employees should be held accountable to the public that funds them and takes very good care of them is not going to do academia any good at all.
    this scientist is finally in trouble because info has emerged to show that the polar story, like so many AGW promotional stories,is a sham.
    What is chilling is that beneficiaries of public largesse hold themselves above the law.
    And frankly it is annoying.

  9. Well 3 bears die due to a storm at sea and as a result polar bears are put on the endangered species list. I think it warrants investigation and clearly academics don't ever police themselves. The suggestion you'd need to be a scientist to trawl through the totally unfounded suppositions and incredible extrapolations is absurd. Yes there is a lot of money at stake, and consequently peoples livelihoods are at stake.

  10. Maybe the government just decided they were wasting $50 million.

    Below is an excerpt from a story I am writing called, "A Maldivian Tragedy," about a local investor who sold his ocean-front property after reading "An Inconvenient Truth."

    My personal favorite: Global Warming is endangering polar bears. Most people accept this as the gospel truth, but very few bother to confirm what seems like a logical proposition. That melancholic photograph of a lone polar bear on an errant chunk of ice is a brilliant use of imagery as it illustrates not only the plight of the endangered species but also implies that global warming has caused the chunk of ice to break loose from its mother ship. The idea that the polar bear is stuck on this ice forever and will soon starve to death or risk drowning is hilarious to people who know anything about polar bears. For starters, the only mammals that swim better than polar bears are dolphins and whales. The polar bear evolved from brown bears more than 200,000 years ago and survived the last interglacial period when it was much warmer than today and there was little or no arctic ice cap at all. In 1940 there were 5,000 polar bears world-wide. Today there are more than 25,000. As my 10-year-old likes to say, “If they really want to protect the polar bears, why don’t they stop shooting them?”

  11. The spector of criminal investigators

    Does the inspector generals office employ any other kind of 'investigator' besides 'criminal'?

    Every publicly traded firm in the US undergoes regular audits.

    Anyone who has been thru a 'proper audit' knows that it is conducted very much like a criminal investigation.

    Mismanagement and fraud share many similar characteristics most notably sloppy management and accounting.

    Microsoft employs a number of 'former criminal detectives' on it's internal audit team.

    Sometimes sloppiness is just sloppiness, sometimes sloppiness is the barn door that fraud drives thru.

  12. Whatever the political ramifications of this story, it has brought to light some pretty amazing and scary aspects of what we are routinely sold as scientific research.
    So, Roger, while you may be justified in stating that "issues of the scientific quality of a particular study [are] not at issue here," let's not sweep those issues under the rug. Whether the scientific quality of Charles Monnet's "3 dead bear study" is addressed openly in this post or in a separate post, it MUST be dealt with.

  13. Roger,

    Did you intend this for your jock site, got a bit sloppy, missed the yellow flag, mixed up a few names, hit the wrong key, and posted here?

  14. Isn't the US government the biggest promoter of global warming on this severely endangered planet ? That would include NASA, the CIA, the Pentagon, the NSA, the EPA, Uncle Tom Cobley and all his agents.

    More likely he got caught and it was so embarrassing, they had to act.

  15. "While Monnett admits to doing sloppy research (PDF), it appears that neither he nor anyone else has been provided with information on what exactly he has been charged with related to scientific misconduct."

    Can you point out where else he admits to that. The only time the word 'sloppy' is used is to describe what the investigators could find with their line of questioning. IOW, they say they were investigating misconduct, but their questions seems to question scientific merit, not question validity.

    JEFF RUCH: Um, but, uh, Agent May indicated to, um, Paul that he was going to lay out what the allegations are, and we haven‟t heard them yet, or perhaps we don‟t understand them from this line of questioning.

    ERIC MAY: Well, the scientif- – well, scientific misconduct, basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh, miscalculations

    JEFF RUCH: Wrong numbers and calculations?

    ERIC MAY: Well, what we‟ve been discussing for the last hour.

    JEFF RUCH: So this is it?

    CHARLES MONNETT: 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.

    In fact, later on, Monnett said he refused to put his name on research that he considered subpar. I believe you have misunderstood him there.

  16. -15-Grypo

    It seems clear that Monnett is referring to his research that had been the subject of the questioning and he is saying that it is not scientific misconduct in any case by maybe "sloppy."

  17. On the other hand, it seems to Eli that you are being deliberately nasty. Monnett asked what the complaints were. May said

    well, scientific misconduct, basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh, miscalculations

    Monnett explained that scientific misconduct is NOT wrong numbers or miscalculations.

    Scientific misconduct is a deliberate attempt to deceive, to alter data.

    Do you question this?

    Can you point to anything, besides your usual Pielke parsing, where Monnett said that he might have been sloppy?

  18. -17- Eli,

    This sounds like the difference between alleged and convicted. At least the way you're presenting it.

    Consider: The investigator does not know what happened, so he investigates to see if the wrong numbers are sloppy mistakes or fabrication. Likewise, miscalculations.

    I don't know either way about this particular case. And publicly, it seems we don't know what the actual matter is really about.

    Also, the suspect is not usually able to set the rules about what's an infraction and what isn't. Members of Congress excepted, of course. Like I said, I'm not saying he's wrong, but I'd feel cheated as a taxpayer if investigators started simply taking the word of the subjects of investigation at face value.

  19. Matt, Jein.

    The suspect does have the right to know about what the charges are. Eric May, the IG Special Agent told Dr. Monnett:

    And the reason we are here 9 today is that received, our office received some allegations 10 pertaining to scientif- – potential scientific misconduct 11 perpetrated by you and your, uh, coworker, Mr. Gleason, okay? 12 So that‟s what the scope of this interview is going to be is 13 your participation in the bowhead – the BWASP program?

    and now they are saying that the suspension has nothing to do with the 2006 paper. Note that they seized his papers and computer and that he was a contracting officer.

    Monnett has not been told about what the "new" investigation is about, but it is, according to the DOI, nothing to do with the polar bear sightings.

    As to Eric May and Lynn Gibson, they clearly were not qualified to investigate anything about the polar bear paper or the bowhead survey. As a taxpayer, I want the IG's office to have a clue.

  20. -19- Eli,

    I absolutely agree that he has a right to know what's being investigated. There's obviously more going on than has been reported in public.

  21. I have to agree with Eli and Grypo here, it makes no sense in the context of the whole interview for Monnett to say his work was sloppy.

    I take it as him saying that *if* the numbers were wrong then that would be sloppy but not scientific misconduct. He spends a couple of hours or so standing by his numbers, explaining where they came from, and even explaining schoolboy maths to the interviewer, so how do you translate that into his "admission" that his work was sloppy? Bizarre.

  22. -21-Alcoacoce

    Thanks, I see your point and have sought to clarify the sentence in question above. Thanks.

  23. good to see you've corrected your post Roger.