Investigators finalize report, but haven’t released it to the public — or the target of the investigation
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — At this point, federal scientist Dr. Charles Monnett must feel a little bit like Josef K., the protagonist of Frank Kafka’s 1925 novel, “The Trial.”
In the novel, Josef K, a bank official, is arrested and prosecuted, without knowing the nature of his alleged crime, and the narrative is never clearly resolved.
In Monnett’s case, federal investigators have been prying into the researcher’s scientific affairs for several years, without ever clarifying any specific charges, and now, it appears that a final report on the investigation has been completed but not released to the public or to Monnett, who with his colleague, Jeffrey Gleason, published a peer-reviewed paper on polar bear drownings that apparently drew some political heat.
Both scientists work for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which regulates offshore drilling activities. In the course of their work, they flew over parts of the Arctic and observed drowning polar bears far from land. While not specifically related to their assignments with BOEM, the scientists were open-minded enough to try and place the polar bear drownings into a wider context of global warming and Arctic energy development.
While federal officials originally said the investigation was related to contracting procedures for scientific studies, transcripts from the investigations showed that the questioning kept returning to the polar bear paper. That led a watchdog group to speculate that the investigation was a politically motivated witch hunt.
The contracting investigation led BOEM to suspend Dr. Monnett with pay on July 18, 2011. He was restored without explanation six weeks later but was not returned to his earlier duties.
According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the final report from the Department of Interior’s Inspector General was sent to BOEM in late June, keeping the report in an unreleased status until BOEM decides whether or not to implement the IG recommendations.
Because the report isn’t public, it’s not clear if those recommendations include disciplinary measures against the scientists or procedural changes in agency research projects, or both.
PEER, which also provides whistleblower protection, is calling on the federal government to provide some closure to the case.
“We urge Interior officials to quickly bring this outlandish ordeal to a close rather than letting it slog on for many months more,” said PEER director Jeff Ruch. “This investigation has been yet another profound embarrassment to the Interior Inspector General which does not appear anxious for this report to see the light of day.”
According to PEER, Monnett’s case has wider implications for federal scientific integrity policies, adopted to ensure objective review of cases exactly like this.
But in the course of the proceedings, the federal government rejected a PEER complaint with the Interior Department’s scientific integrity officer.
Ruch said that could undermine key provisions of recently adopted scientific integrity policies.
“Regardless of the legal merits of its argument, the IG can and should voluntarily agree to coordinate with the Scientific Integrity Office to avoid duplicative or conflicting investigations into scientific matters,” Ruch said. “As this case amply demonstrates, the Inspector General’s Office has zero scientific expertise and has no business conducting misguided, ham-handed abusive probes of scientists or their work.”