Polar bear probe looks like fishing expedition

On the path to extinction. PHOTO BY USGS/STEVEN AMSTRUP.

Investigation of federal scientists takes a strange turn during latest round of interviews

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — If Franz Kafka were still alive, he’d no doubt be closely following the curious case of the ongoing investigation swirling around a pair of federal scientists who helped raise public awareness about environmental issues in the Arctic.

The controversial investigation by the Interior Department Office of Inspector General into a 2006 peer-reviewed journal article on drowned polar bears this week veered off into new directions which appear to solidify rather than impeach the article, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group that has been following the case and providing legal representation for the scientists.

During the interviews, it became apparent that the IG office has received oral reports of more drowned polar bears in open Arctic waters than had been officially reported.

The latest interview was with Dr. Jeffrey Gleason, PhD, an avian ecologist in the Gulf of Mexico region of the Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement as part of an inquiry that began started in March 2010.

“At this point, the IG agents appear to be desperately grasping at straws to justify this 18-month fiasco of a probe,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “This investigation is making Interior’s Office of Inspector General an international laughingstock,” Ruch said.

According to the transcripts, the questioning once again focused on a 2006 observational note authored by Dr. Gleason and a colleague, Dr. Charles Monnett, PhD, another BOEM wildlife biologist who was suspended and reinstated this summer without explanation in connection with this IG investigation.

The seven-page paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology, reported sightings of drowned polar bears in open waters following a storm. It had undergone multiple levels of internal and external peer review. Its publication helped galvanize scientific and public appreciation for the profound effects that climate change may already be having in the Arctic.

In today’s interview, the IG agents acknowledged the validity of photographs and contemporaneous notebook entries recording the four drowned bears described in the article.  However, the IG agents –

•    Stated that other observers claimed seeing two more polar bear carcasses in open water in early September 2004, just days before Drs. Monnett and Gleason made their sightings – but these two sightings were not recorded or otherwise reported.  These additional “floaters” would reinforce their article’s discussion of retreating sea ice as a new causal factor in polar bear mortality;

•    Queried consistency of reporting for polar bears in the Bowhead Whale Aerial Program survey computerized database in prior decades. The main question was whether “death” was properly coded as a “behavior.”  However, observations of polar bears were incidental to the purpose of the flights, which was to track Bowhead whales; and

•    Spent nearly a quarter of the two-hour Gleason interview discussing a misplaced routing slip on an internal agency poster regarding sea ice retreat that was ultimately approved by the agency.  IG Agent Eric May, who claimed to have found the one-third page routing slip “in the trash” asked Dr. Gleason to take a polygraph test on whether he was trying to hide it.

The IG also confirmed that it had named Dr. Gleason in a criminal referral but repeatedly refused to say what the basis for a criminal accusation might be.  In its questioning, the IG again used comments by peer reviewers to suggest that something untoward had been done.

“When this interview transcript is published, it will reinforce why it is utterly inappropriate to have criminal investigators assessing how scientific publications are edited,” added Ruch, noting that the jurisdiction for the IG to conduct this inquiry into unofficial publications is unclear.

PEER has filed a formal complaint that any charges of scientific misconduct or bias should be handled not by untrained criminal investigations but instead should be referred to Interior’s process for handling any allegations of scientific misconduct through professional review.  Interior officials have publicly pledged to follow that process but it is unclear why it is not being followed in this case.

Links courtesy PEER



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One Response

  1. Perhaps it would prove useful if the investigator himself was investigated. It may prove interesting as to why this has gone on for as long as it has, aside from the Republicon intrusion, or witch hunt, as well as time & money wasted.

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