Suspicious Minds in Alaska

08/12/2011 10:31 am ET | Updated Oct 12, 2011

The suspension of Department of the Interior scientist Charles Monnett due to an investigation for "integrity issues" has raised the suspicion that the whole affair was related to his 2006 polar bear study suggesting that bears had drowned while swimming long distances. That paper brought attention to global warming and the possibility that polar bears might start drowning in higher numbers if sea ice melting increased. That suspicion was later fueled by rumors that the whole affair might be linked to oil exploration and other interests in the Arctic. As recently as yesterday there were reports that the suspension may actually be related to procurement issues with a current study on polar bears in Alberta.

Clear information on the exact charges is still lacking, and a blog post earlier today goes into the issue in more detail.

However, regardless of the allegations or the outcome of the investigation, I cannot help but wonder why the very first suspicion that popped up was that Monnett's polar bear work might not have been legitimate. In the words of Sen. James Inhofe (R - OK), in a letter on 8/9 to acting Inspector General Mary Kendal: "With Dr. Monnett's research being the foundation of critical ESA decisions connected to global warming, accusations against his work could be serious and have far reaching consequences." He also mentions that designating critical habitat for the polar bear "added additional layers of onerous regulations to oil and gas development [...] in Alaska."

Obviously, there is a lot more here than just general curiosity as to why a scientist has been suspended -- I mean, if it had been a scientist without his visibility and role on the global warming movement, would the media even care? I suspect not. I believe this whole affair is a reflection of the general state of public opinion (as well as that of elected officials) when climate change is involved: uncertainty, doubt, questioning. And there seems to be some sort of eagerness from the skeptical camp to show that something (anything) that suggests or confirms climate change may be somehow untrue.

(For the record, just last month a new study strongly suggested that long distance swimming by polar bear mothers with cubs may cause cub death, a conclusion evidenced by higher cub survival when mothers did not swim long distances.)

There should be more focus on another, very important issue: whether Dr. Monnett's rights under policies intended to protect scientists from political interference have been violated. According to the transcripts of his interview, it certainly seems that there have at least been attempts to "kill this study" and prevent him from being a "conscientious scientist." This is a serious charge that must be further investigated.