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'Polarbeargate' Scientist To Head Back To Work

Two polar bears spar on the shoreline of the Hudson Bay in November 2007.
Paul J. Richards
AFP/Getty Images
Two polar bears spar on the shoreline of the Hudson Bay in November 2007.

The polar bear scientist who has spent more than a month suspended from his government job has now been told that he should report back to work on Friday — although NPR has learned that his job is changing and he will no longer manage federal contracts.

"Chuck is planning to go to work. He just doesn't know what the work is going to be," says attorney Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is providing legal representation for wildlife biologist Charles Monnett.

In 2006, Monnett published a report on his sightings of apparently drowned polar bears in the Arctic. The dead polar bears became a powerful — and controversial — symbol of the danger of melting ice and climate change.

Monnett was put on administrative leave on July 18 by the agency he works for at the Department of the Interior. The move came as Monnett was being investigated by the department's Office of Inspector General.

That investigation is ongoing, and it is not clear what aspects of Monnett's research or management work are still under scrutiny. Monnett's supporters say what's become known as "polarbeargate" is a witch hunt into a scientist whose research has political implications.

Investigators have repeatedly asked Monnett questions about his dead-polar-bear report. They have also asked about his contract management duties.

The fact that he's been identified as the subject as an ongoing investigation is going to leave a shadow over him no matter what he does.

According to Monnett's legal team, investigators suggested he improperly steered a federal research contract to a polar bear scientist at the University of Alberta who gave him comments on his soon-to-be-famous dead-polar-bear report prior to its publication.

Also, in a letter to Monnett, an agent with the inspector general's office said that Monnett had admitted to helping the scientist prepare a proposal for the contract, then inappropriately served on a committee that reviewed that proposal.

Monnett's lawyers say he followed standard procedures at his office and that this sole-source contract was under negotiation long before the two scientists corresponded about Monnett's dead-polar-bear report.

Ruch says Monnett got a phone call on Thursday telling him to report back to his office and that the administrative leave is being suspended. "He thinks in some sense it is a vindication that they acted in undue haste," says Ruch.

However, Ruch says Monnett is concerned that he does not yet know what his duties will be upon his return.

Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, confirmed in an email that Monnett's administrative leave is coming to an end.

"He was informed that he will have no role in developing or managing contracts and will instead be in our environmental assessment division," Schwartz said in the email.

"The return of an employee to work does not suggest that future administrative actions cannot/will not be taken," Schwartz added. "Federal regulations create a presumption against lengthy administrative leaves. Lengthier administrative leaves are reserved for exceptional situations when all other options are considered insufficient to adequately protect the government's interests."

When he was placed on leave, Monnett had been managing approximately $50 million worth of government-funded studies, according to a complaint that his lawyers filed with the Department of the Interior last month.

That complaint alleged that Department of the Interior officials are guilty of scientific and scholarly misconduct because of their treatment of Monnett. An inquiry is being conducted into those allegations, according to a letter sent to Ruch by the Department of the Interior's scientific integrity officer.

Ruch said that Monnett is concerned about the continuing investigation: "The fact that he's been identified as the subject as an ongoing investigation is going to leave a shadow over him no matter what he does."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.