The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Blue Monnett

The eye of Sauron has cast its gaze on Dr. Charles Monnett, the fellow who had the misfortune to be footnoted by Al Gore on the polar bear question.



Becky Bohrer provides a nice report in Huffington's, which is better on climate change than it is on medicine. A couple of quotes:
The federal investigation into suspended wildlife biologist Charles Monnett has focused on the scientific merit of a 2006 article in which he and a colleague recorded their observations of apparently drowned polar bears in the Arctic

...

The article, published in 2006 in the journal Polar Biology, is based on observations that Monnett and fellow scientist Jeffrey Gleason made in 2004. At the time, they were conducting an aerial survey of bowhead whales, and saw four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm. In the peer-reviewed article, they said they were reporting, to the best of their knowledge, the first observations of the bears floating dead and presumed drowned while apparently swimming long distances.
The bunkosphere, of course, sees it differently.

First of all, this is not the sort of thing the administrative branch of the government should be focusing on.

Period.

If Monnett's reasoning about the observation is wrong, so be it. Do you expect a wildlife ecologist to simply ignore an observation like that? Surely it is his obligation to report on it. It would be hard to convince him not to think about what it means.

Being wrong is part of advancing hypotheses. It's part of science. It may be more fun to be right, but being wrong is not something you expect to bring down the Spanish Inquisition.

Now, I suppose this doesn't obviate the possibility of some gross misallocation of funds that Monnett manages, as has been darkly hinted. But the interrogation really doesn't seem to go to that point at all. Indeed, the transcript is quite funny in spots, in a sad and outrageous sort of way. It is the usual sort of nonsense that you can see everywhere on the internet, a person with vastly less knowledge making nonsensical allegations about a scientist's work in an arch tone suggestive of malfeasance, but in addition to the usual intellectual mismatch (Monnett can't seem to hide a sneer at one point) there is also the peculiar intrusion of legal authority into the life of a scientist.

As you consider the innuendo, consider in addition to the ludicrous transcripts of the intrepid gumshoes grilling the poor guy, the bizarre Bush-administration-science-commisars episode. (Also a minor echo here.) Lomborg goes on endlessly about them too. It is clear that the bunkosphere, the Bush administration and various career appointments they made to the executive branch, and the Inhofe-Perry axis, have an absolutely ridiculously huge and mean bug up their butts about polar bears.

Consider also that Monnett is under a gag order while the bunkosphere is not.

Also consider the Texas lease contingency scam. Scientists, even many of those who manage large budgets, are not trained or experienced administrators. Like Texas deeds of title, a flaw can always be found in how a project was managed if one has the heart to throw an innocent scientist and his entourage onto the fire. The acceptance or rejection of any particular management style is almost a matter of taste.

Thus if someone in authority wishes to hang aspersions systematically on results one dislikes and not on results one likes, for reasons which may have little to do with the underlying truth of the matter, there is plenty of rope around. Of course, once can resort to this extreme course only very rarely, as one does not actually want to have one's entire scientific community pack their bags for some less dangerous country. At least, one hasn't until now.

Real crimes should be prosecuted, of course, but neither hackers nor government appointees should be encouraged to go on vast fishing expeditions on the basis of accusations of marginal transgressions and judgment calls blown out of any reasonable proportion. This applies to Monnett, and applies to Sauron's previous and ongoing victims as well, notably Mike Mann who amazingly still manages to get some work done despite the constant harassment of (what I certainly hope is) the biggest fishing expedition in the climate world.

Update: For some reason (grumble) much of the conversation is happening at Eli's. Fair enough, but please, if you haven't looked at it before, don't miss the aforementioned bizarre Bush-administration-science-commisars episode. Polar bears make those people especially crazy for some reason.

Also Neven has had a very similar position up for a couple of weeks now.



Image: Union of Concerned Scientists. More here. (I also really like #6.)

15 comments:

David B. Benson said...

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, ...

Deech56 said...

Michael, I can comment more later, but the gist of my comments (current as of a couple of days ago) is here. I will have to say that a scientist-turned administrator receives a great deal of training on the FAR, must accumulate a certain number of continuing education credits and has to undergo annual training in ethics procedures. That being said, there are always gray areas, so although a person may not be found guilty of any wrongdoing, it's easy to find a basis to investigate. Sad.

Deech56 said...

A couple of points:

First, From what I have read, the focus is more on the procurement process. The FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulations) and the myriad of regulations, rules and guidelines are designed to ensure that money is spent on the best product and not to enrich one group of people.

The difficulty is that in science, one relies on collegial relationships, but outsiders may see these relationships as cronyism. Doing one's work in the face of scrutiny requires a bit of tightrope walking, and there are ways that a process is documented to ensure that the rules are being followed.

Second, however the complaint was made (elected official? political employee turned regular employee? personal enemy? I have no idea), the President and executive branch must have faith that the system works. You really can't arbitrarily stymie an investigation in process. The investigators are professionals in the same way that the Program Officers are. This is not to say that there's not something odd going on here, but that there are certain steps that must be followed once a process is started.

The caveat is that although I do have some knowledge on how the government does things, I do not know Monnett's organization nor anything specific about this case other than what's been on the internet.

Deech56 said...

To add: sole source awards are almost certainly subject to extra scrutiny, and there's a great deal of additional paperwork for this process, which is lovingly refered to as the JOFOC (justification for other than fair and open competition). This is a fun acronym to use at parties and other social gatherings

Deech56 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deech56 said...

OK, this is not good. h/t Eli

Michael Tobis said...

See also here,

Jay Alt said...

>Second, however the complaint was made ...<

I caught a story saying a blizzard of complaints was filed. And I'd bet $10 that H. Sterling Burnett was involved, he's with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

He's authored several reports and stories on polar bears. He massages the work of real Arctic scientists like Sterling & Durocher and misleads the public as to why any conclusion of declining PB populations must be wrong. Of course, he doesn't publish in actual wildlife journals. And his whole career has been spent spinning yarns for conservative advocacy organizations.

But why wouldn't Burnett know more about polar bears than the so-called 'experts', writing from the vantage point of his desk in Dallas?

Grypo said...

Deech's comments have been very helpful here and at Eli's. But one must wonder what the hell it has to do with polar bears. Perhaps they were looking for scientific misconduct to try and pin a motive on why Monnett messed up the procurement process. Maybe they thought they were doing due diligence? Just really had nothing to go on? So they were just seeing if the process was wrong because, as Monnett describes, it's how it's done, or because there was wrongdoing. I think the end of this will be a slap on the wrist and a reaffirming of how funds are distributed in sole source awards situations.

Doug said...

The IG interview w/Monnett's underling Jeffrey Gleason is quite extraordinary. It's quite clear that for the interviewer at least the issue here is about the annoying nature of the research findings, not some foul-up with the nuts and bolts of how the contract was handled.

"ERIC MAY: Curious, the Inconvenient Truth, did you know this study was referenced in that movie by Al Gore?

JEFFREY GLEASON: You know, it's been a long time since I saw that, and like I said, it's been so long. I think these sorts of things tend to mushroom, and the interpretation gets popularized. Something very small turns into this big snowball coming down the mountain, and that's I think what happened with this paper.

ERIC MAY: Did anybody call you from the production of that movie?

JEFFREY GLEASON: No.

ERIC MAY: Nobody called to verify information?

JEFFREY GLEASON: No, not that I'm aware of. Nobody called me."

Etc.

It's fair to say that in online discussions of climate change, if the name "Al Gore" comes up it's almost a sure sign the conversation has swerved from hard facts and into mushy politics. One would have to be pretty naive to read the Gleason interview without surmising that somebody's got a hair up their ass about those pesky dead bears and their emotive power.

Doug said...

Sorry, for those who've not read it the Gleason interview may be read here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jul/29/transcript-jeffrey-gleason?intcmp=239

Olivia said...

The Derocher study was a cooperative study that was co-funded at about $1M by each party. It was a continuation of ongoing work by the Canadian Wildlife Service and U. Alberta. It was a great value for the US and has resulted in brilliant research. Below is an excerpt from the JOFOC
JUSTIFICATION AND APPROVAL FOR OTHER THAN FULL AND OPEN COMPETITION

“Populations and Sources of Recruitment in Polar Bears”

1. Contracting Activity:

Department of the Interior
Minerals Management Service
Procurement Operations Branch
381 Elden Street, MS 2500
Herndon, VA 20170

2. Description of Need: This Justification and Approval (J&A) authorizes and approves the issuance of a cost-plus contract titled “Populations and Sources of Recruitment in Polar Bears”. This contract calls for the University of Alberta, Department of Biological Sciences (PI Dr. Andrew Derocher) to work in collaboration with the Canadian Wildlife Service to instrument juvenile polar bears with satellite transmitters along the Canadian Beaufort Sea and to monitor their movements for a minimum of 5 years. These findings, together with findings from previous studies, are to be analyzed and used by the Investigator to provide a more ecologically rigorous interpretation of biological population boundaries for polar bears than is currently used for management decision-making. This study is to be coordinated with ongoing work by Derocher and Dr. Ian Sterling, Canadian Wildlife Service, Polar Bear Biologist. As part of those activities, Canadian polar bear biologists are capturing and examining approximately 200 polar bears each year. Bears to be instrumented in the proposed study are to be selected from those already being captured. This work is also to be closely coordinated with remote villages and subsistence Natives near the study site. The total estimated dollar amount of the contract will be $1,050,000. The period of performance will be 5 years.

3. Statutory Authority. The statutory authority permitting other than full and open competition is Title 10, U.S.C., Section 2304 © (1), as implemented by paragraph 6.302-1 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), only one responsible source.

4. Demonstration of the Contractor’s Unique Qualifications. Dr. Derocher is a well published, renowned polar bear expert who has conducted research on polar bears in Norway and Canada. He will be conducting this study in collaboration with the internationally acclaimed polar bear biologist, Dr. Ian Stirling of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), also based in Alberta. Although this contract is with the University of Alberta (UA), MMS funds are leveraged by cost-sharing from the UA and CWS collaboration. Those organizations will provide all funding, expertise, permits and logistical resources needed to initially capture approximately 200 polar bears each year from which subjects will be selected for this project. During the subsequent monitoring/analytical phases, additional cost-share funding will be provided including the PI’s salary, a significant portion of the travel budget, and certain expenses for analysis and field work. A research permit will be obtained to apply the satellite collars. However, this specific permitting and the research in general will be greatly facilitated by working relationships that have been established with local villages and subsistence Natives.

Deech56 said...

Thanks, Grypo. My personal opinion is that the investigators were out to get something on him. Since the manuscript investigation was coming up empty, they shifted to another aspect of his work - one where it's very easy to get get tripped up.

Grypo said...

"My personal opinion is that the investigators were out to get something on him. Since the manuscript investigation was coming up empty, they shifted to another aspect of his work - one where it's very easy to get get tripped up."

I guess either reality is almost just as likely as the other. But since there is definite push to exploit the Arctic, I'd agree that they want to nail him in particular. Although the investigators themselves are probably just looking to get a big collar and devoid of political motivation. The decision to go after Monnett came from higher up or from an outside interested party, I imagine.

EliRabett said...

There are reasons. Eric May just got fell through the ice