Sat, Jul 30, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Polar bear scientist suspended, work probed

The Guardian, Washington

It is seen as one of the most distressing effects of climate change ever recorded — a polar bear 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 US$50 million in research projects and was suspended on July 18.

Some question why Monnett, employed by the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), has been suspended now. The administration of US President Barack Obama 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 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,” Ruch said.

The group filed an official complaint on Monnett’s behalf on Thursday, accusing the -government of persecuting the scientist and interfering with his work. It seeks his reinstatement and a public apology.

Monnett was on a research flight tracking bowhead whales, in 2004, when 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 because of 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.

A paper by Monnett and colleagues in the science journal Polar Biology quickly heightened public concern for the polar bear. In 2008, the government designated the animal a threatened species, but oil firms, which want to drill in the pristine 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.

Melissa Schwartz, for BOEMRE, said the inquiry into Monnett’s work, overseen by the inspector general, was being carried out -after “new guidelines on scientific integrity,” and that government research on Arctic drilling would continue.

The employees’ group claims the investigation is intended to discredit Monnett’s science paper on the polar bear. A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office found huge gaps in BOEMRE’s research on the impacts of drilling in the Arctic.

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