Polar bear scientist opposed industry research initiative

Assistance to a rival proposal was investigated.

Oil-and-gas exploration's impact on the Arctic has inspired research initiatives by industry and the US government. Credit: Stockbyte/GETTY IMAGES

A researcher who became the subject of an unexplained US government investigation last year has been under scrutiny in part for his role in advancing a US$1.8-million government-led research effort to integrate scientific studies of the Arctic environment, Nature has learned.

Charles Monnett, a wildlife biologist and former contracting official with the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in Anchorage, Alaska, was suspended from his post in July 2011 because of undisclosed “integrity issues”. Monnett was later assigned to a different position within the Bureau. Previously, his job involved the review and oversight of contracts awarded to outside research groups, but he is better known for his report in 2006 of drowned polar bears in the Beaufort Sea (C. Monnett and J. S. Gleason, Polar Biol. 29, 681–687; 2006), which helped to make the animal a poster species for climate change.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group based in Washington DC that is providing legal representation for Monnett, has called the investigation by the Department's Inspector General (IG) a “witch hunt” and suggests that Monnett is being unfairly targeted because his work conflicted with oil-and-gas industry interests (see ‘Bear researcher frozen out’). Last year the group released transcripts in which IG investigators without scientific training challenged Monnett on his polar-bear study. PEER now says that it has been told the investigation is complete, but that results have not been made public, or shared with Monnett, because BOEM leaders have not reached a decision about what action to take.

Documents obtained by Nature through the Freedom of Information Act do not reveal the investigators' conclusions but they suggest a more specific context for Monnett’s troubles: he assisted in the writing of a proposal from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that he was also responsible for reviewing for the BOEM. He also resisted a separate initiative by oil companies. 

Over five years, the NOAA study would synthesize knowledge of different elements of the Arctic environment — from marine mammals to fish to zooplankton — and offer conclusions about the overall impact of oil-and-gas exploration there. The NOAA team was awarded the contract last year.

Monnett exchanged e-mails with the NOAA researchers between February and May 2011, made edits to their draft proposal and talked on the phone with them about how to strengthen it. Nature has seen emails from within the BOEM showing that the reason for his suspension in 2011 was management concern about similar assistance being provided to a grant applicant on another contract, which Monnett was also responsible for reviewing.

Vocal critic

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, argues that because the NOAA proposal involved an agreement between government agencies, it is not clear whether Monnett broke ethics rules. The content of Monnett’s e-mails and edits were redacted from the information provided to Nature because, according to a letter from the BOEM, they “contain sensitive information relating to the investigation” of his actions.

The government also withheld an e-mail discussion between the NOAA team and Monnett about an oil-industry project proposal to partner with government on a synthesis of Arctic science. One email that was released shows the NOAA researchers were concerned this effort might produce results before their own project. But Nature has seen documentation from another source showing that Monnett voiced criticism of the oil-industry effort, both to the NOAA scientists and to his superiors at the BOEM, because he felt that it duplicated the NOAA project.

PEER says that Monnett is not at liberty to comment on his suspension. Theresa Eisenman, a spokeswoman for the BOEM, says that the Bureau also cannot comment. Scott Smullen, a spokesman for NOAA, said that he was unable to provide a statement from the agency because the relevant people were travelling.

Michael Macrander, a science team lead with Shell in Anchorage, Alaska, says that in 2011 there were a number of conversations between NOAA and Shell and other oil-and-gas companies about a collaboration to synthesize Arctic science. Ultimately, the industry effort found a home with the North Pacific Research Board, a marine-research funding agency set up in 1997 using funds obtained in a lawsuit brought against the state of Alaska by the US federal government. Macrander adds that science thrives on robust dialogue. “There is room for everyone in this process and industry should not be summarily excluded,” he says.

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Samuel Reich, E. Polar bear scientist opposed industry research initiative. Nature (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2012.11157

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