Feds probing validity of polar bear science

Most Coalblog readers will be familiar with the headlines and media attention generated in the wake of a peer-reviewed observational report that was published in Polar Biology in 2006. The paper was characterized by environmental groups and the media as having found a strong link between climate change, receding polar ice pack, and increased polar bear mortality in the Beaufort Sea.

At the time the paper was published, lead author, Dr. Charles Monnett, appeared to take part in the public concern and campaign when he stated this paper that

drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open-water periods continues.

Since that time environmental groups have used the report as a key piece of evidence in their advocacy efforts to force the passage of greenhouse gas reduction legislation. The story of the dead bears was also used as evidence of dangerous climate change and was directly linked to retreating polar ice in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The paper’s findings and pressure from green activists were also a key reason for the listing of polar bears as an endangered species.

However, an ongoing investigation by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General is raising questions about the the accuracy and validity of Monnett’s research and findings. Monnett has been placed on paid administrative leave while investigations over “integrity issues” related to his work are completed. (Sources described as “familiar” with the investigation, but unauthorized to speak publicly, and unwilling to identify themselves claim the leave has nothing to do with the journal article or the integrity of his work.)

Monnett published the paper after he and co-author Jeffrey Gleason spotted four dead bears in the ocean while completing aerial surveys for bowhead whales. Both biologists admitted that the bears were seen while their plane was traveling at 1,500 feet over the water and that none of the dead animals were retrieved or studied to determine the actual cause of death.

During questioning by investigators Gleason actively downplayed the the link between climate and bear mortality. He was quoted in investigation transcripts as stating that neither he or his co-author had “mentioned global warming in the paper.” Gleason also told investigators that the bears likely drowned as a result of a strong windstorm, not due to receding ice pack.

Despite trying to distance himself from the popular receding ice = polar bear deaths media meme, Gleason did admit that the paper was used as fodder for the climate change movement and the push to have the bears listed. He even stated that his supervisor told him that he “was the reason polar bears got listed.” Gleason then distanced himself from that interpretation by arguing that “these sorts of things tend to mushroom, and the interpretation gets popularized … Something very small turns into this big snowball … that’s, I think, what happened with this paper.”

Investigators appeared to be focusing their questions on the peer review process carried out on this paper. Apparently the report was reviewed by Monnett’s wife – also a scientist – as well as a researcher from the University of Alberta. Monnett’s lawyer from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Jeff Ruch, noted that investigator’s questions also focused on Monnett’s management of a $50 million research budget. There were questions as to whether a form of “quid pro quo” was involved with trading peer review results for research contracts. Ruch denies any wrong doing and states that the contracts for the funding had been in negotiations for months before the paper was written and that the funding was approved by Monnett’s supervisors and the report was also reviewed by other scientists in the department as well as the journal before publication.

A subsequent review of the Monnett and Gleason’s work by Dr. Rob Ramey, a research biologist, questioned the validity of their findings and noted that they had made “unwarranted assumptions and large extrapolations based on a single event.” Ramey also criticized the presence of Monnett’s wife  and the University of Alberta researcher on the peer review panel, stating that they were conflicts of interest.

Given the fact that governments around the world rely on published, peer-reviewed science as the basis for policy decisions and trillions of dollars in public expenses, the potential for “integrity issues” and conflicts of interest influencing scientific findings should be of primary concern to taxpayers and elected officials.  While Monnett’s defenders claim this investigation is an attempt to intimidate scientists, the reality is that when science is used as a vehicle to impact the economy and policies of entire countries, it is essential that the research driving it be unassailable.

13. August 2011 by Jason Hayes
Categories: Climate Change, Environment, USA | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Feds probing validity of polar bear science