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Cleared of misconduct, polar-bear researcher is reprimanded for leaked e-mails

Posted on behalf of Eugenie Samuel Reich.

A US Department of Interior (DOI) researcher whose observations of drowned polar bears rallied advocates for action on climate change has been exonerated of scientific misconduct. But the public release, on 28 September, of an investigation by the DOI inspector-general (IG) reveals that the researcher, Charles Monnett, has been found guilty on another charge: leaking e-mails that helped environmental groups to sue the government over its approval of plans by Shell Oil to conduct oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

The IG report was obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act and placed online by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a Washington DC-based advocacy group that is representing Monnett, who works for the DOI’s Bureau for Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The report criticizes Monnett and one of his co-authors for using an incomplete data set when, in a 2006  article, they reported seeing four drowned polar bears that they suggested had died in a storm while swimming in search of sea ice. But a spokeswoman for the BOEM, Theresa Eisenman, says the agency concluded that the investigators’ findings “do not support a conclusion that the individual scientists involved engaged in scientific misconduct”.

News of an investigation into Monnett was first made public in 2011 by PEER, which called it a “witch-hunt” (see ‘Bear researcher frozen out‘), but the BOEM and the IG would not comment in any detail on the nature of the allegations at the time. The newly released IG report fills in what happened: it says that in 2010, an employee of the DOI complained to the IG that Monnett improperly leaked government e-mail and published false data in his polar-bear manuscript. Subsequently, the IG agents themselves initiated an additional inquiry into whether Monnett violated US contracting rules when he helped a scientist apply for a BOEM grant. Eisenman says that it was this issue that led to Monnett’s brief suspension as a contracting official in 2011, and that the BOEM was not aware of the broader scope of the IG investigation until recently. Due to a lack of clear guidance to officials on contracting rules, Monnett has not been censured on that issue, or over assistance he provided to researchers on a separate contract (see ‘Polar bear scientist opposed oil industry proposal‘). However the IG does fault his manuscript, suggesting that he deliberately understated his data, and criticizes him for the leak.

The IG report does not name the complainant, but it makes clear that he or she may have had the sympathy of Monnett’s management. Interviews with Monnett’s supervisor, Jeffery Loman, suggest that he had investigated the entirety of Monnett’s e-mail at the time of the leak and discovered that Monnett was the likely source of leaked e-mails that were helping governmental groups to sue the BOEM, but decided not to censure him because he was scared that any reprimand letter would be forwarded to PEER and leaked also. But a 27 September reprimand letter to Monnett from the BOEM Deputy Director Walter Cruickshank says that the government now takes the leak seriously because the leaked information was used in court by groups suing the government in 2008. “These e-mails, in part, were cited by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in making the decisions to vacate BOEM’s approval of the Shell exploration plans.”

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, says that the e-mails showed that BOEM officials were concerned about possible harm to Arctic mammals from the Shell exploration plans but granted the approval anyway. He thinks that the failure by the government to admit the e-mails to the administrative record during the court case constitutes an attempt to hide wrongdoing, meaning that Monnett’s disclosure ought to qualify for protection under the US Federal Whistleblower Protection Act, so he intends to file a complaint with the agency over the reprimand. “That’s not the most consequential thing. It’s not like a loss of pay or function,” he says, adding that there is, however, a principle at stake.

Ruch takes issue with findings by the IG that Monnett admitted to “deliberately” understating his evidence that polar bears were drowning, saying that this was a description by Monnett of his own scientific caution, and not, as the IG interpreted it, an admission of intentional data manipulation. The IG referred information on Monnett’s understatement of his data and his leak to to the US District Attorney in Alaska, alleging a violation of US law, but that office has decided not to prosecute him.


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