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Arctic science probe looking more like witch hunt

Polar bears in the Arctic. PHOTO COURTESY USGS.

Long-running investigation appears to be heading nowhere

By Summit Violce

SUMMIT COUNTY — Federal investigators last week continued to pursue what looks more and more like a witch hunt against scientists who are researching Arctic ecosystems by interviewing new witnesses.

The investigation, which has changed course and shifted shape several times since 2010, is now looking at data from a long-running bowhead whale survey program, but the main effect has been to leave some federal scientists fearful about potential career risks associated with overseeing Arctic Research projects, according to a whistle-blower protection and watchdog group.

“The lengths of this discredited probe suggest a vendetta rather than a fair-minded inquiry,” said Public Employees for Environmental Ethics director Jeff Ruch. PEER is providing legal representation for Charles Monnett and Jeffrey Gleason, the two researchers at the center of the probe. “Though I did not think it possible, this fishing expedition has managed to become even more attenuated and absurd,” Ruch said.

The Interior Department’s inspector general started the probe in 2010, after the scientists observed drowned polar bears in open Arctic waters, which led them to author a short article in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology.

PEER released part of an email that suggests the IG investigators are trying to determine whether  dead polar bears were documented in the Bowhead whale survey database between 1987- 2003.” According to Ruch, the investigation is an apparent attempt to show that sightings of four drowned polar bears following a storm in 2004 was not remarkable.

According to PEER, the IG involvement has made scientists leery of criminalizing the peer review process in publishing research.  It has also made scientists who are overseeing research contracts uneasy, as well.  One side-street of the IG investigation looked at a polar bear study by the University of Alberta.  The IG raised issues about how the scientific merits of contracts were reviewed and approved.

Colleagues defended Dr. Monnett’s actions in the Alberta study and in overseeing a sizeable portfolio of Arctic research.  They confronted then-Bureau of Ocean Energy Management & Enforcement (BOEM) Michael Bromwich in asking him to provide some clarity.  Bromwich asked for a review which came back to him in late October 2011.  That review found “inconsistent guidance”, unclear delegation of authority, fear of signing invoices and a host of other impediments to a robust science program unresolved. Bromwich, who just opened a “crisis management” firm, left without addressing any of the requested reforms, leaving problems to fester from continued inattention.

“This seemingly endless review has needlessly disrupted the lives of the affected scientists and their work,” said Ruch, explaining that the IG has consistently refused to lay out specific charges for the scientists to rebut.  “If the Office of Inspector General cannot come to a point after more than two years, how many more years will it take to wrap this up?” Ruch concluded.

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