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.