Interior’s Scientific Integrity Program Devolving Into Mosh Pit

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Interior’s Scientific Integrity Program Devolving Into Mosh Pit

Absence of Promised Protocols, Accountability or Independence Cripples Credibility

Washington, DC — A vaunted initiative to restore public confidence in the scientific work of the federal agency with the most tarnished record is foundering, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  The U.S. Department of Interior has failed to deliver on its promises to conduct independent investigations of reports of scientific misconduct, prevent political interference or develop protocols to prevent duplicative and conflicting investigations, leaving an opaque jumble of irresolution.

One of the highest profile complaints under Interior’s scientific integrity process (launched in February 2011) involves Arctic researcher Dr. Charles Monnett who charged that his own agency and the Interior Office of Inspector General (OIG) had improperly disrupted his work in a “witch hunt” involving his paper on polar bears drowning after storms.  On August 8, 2011, Interior Scientific Integrity Officer Ralph Morganweck wrote that he was “conducting an inquiry into these allegations.”  Yet, in a letter to Representative Edward Markey three weeks after pledging to investigate the complaint against OIG (which letter PEER obtained recently under the Freedom of Information Act), Morganweck stated that he had already met with the OIG twice about the. Monnett case and –

 “…I will be assisting the OIG in reviewing the scientific integrity claims that have been raised in this matter.”

“This is beyond screwy.  How in the name of objectivity can the integrity officer work to assist the subject of a complaint without telling the complainant?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who is asking Morganweck to recuse himself from the case but has gotten no reply.  “If there is no independence in these reviews, Interior’s scientific integrity process is simply an elaborate exercise in damage control.”

At the same time, the complaint sits in limbo.  On April 2, 2012, nearly eight months after accepting the Monnett case, Morganweck wrote to PEER (which represents Dr. Monnett)  asking for basic information indicating that he had barely begun a review.  Nor has he ever asked to interview Dr. Monnett.  Similarly, five months after PEER filed a complaint about improper exclusion of livestock grazing from a massive Bureau of Land Management landscape study there has been little movement.  Indeed, the assigned science integrity officer never asked for the list of witnesses PEER had offered.

The conflicting investigations by the OIG and Scientific Integrity Office also prompted promises last summer to develop a protocol to sort out who does what and to insure that OIG probes do not extend into scientific issues for which it has no expertise.  Thus, in an August 25, 2011 letter about the Monnett case to Senator James Inhofe, Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote:

“We are, however, in contact with the Department’s Office of Scientific Integrity on this matter and are developing protocols for coordination on such matters in the future.”

Yet, in response to a recent Freedom of Information Act request by PEER for any “protocol, guidance or memorandum of understanding” between the two entities or adopted unilaterally by the OIG on handling scientific misconduct issues, the OIG declared that it had “no documents responsive to your request.”

“Consistent and considered treatment of allegations are among the stated goals of Interior’s Scientific Integrity policy, yet this failure to coordinate makes every scientific controversy into a bureaucratic jump ball,” Ruch added, noting that PEER is preparing a series of reforms it will file as rule-making petitions this summer to fix holes in the procedures.  “Interior’s scientific integrity program has broken down coming out of the gate and needs to be retooled.”

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