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Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" drew public attention to global warming. And in that movie, he talked about how melting ice was affecting polar bears.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH")
AL GORE: A new scientific study shows that for the first time, they're finding polar bears that have actually drowned swimming long distances, up to 60 miles, to find the ice.
INSKEEP: That polar bear study that Gore mentioned was written by a government scientist who is now under an official investigation. He's been suspended from his job. His supporters say he's being targeted because the dead polar bears he saw became a potent symbol of climate change.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on the latest twist in what some have called Polar Bear Gate.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Charles Monnett is a wildlife biologist with an agency of the Department of the Interior. He was flying over the Arctic in 2004, doing a routine survey of whales when his team spotted an unusual sight: dead polar bears floating in the water. This February, he was questioned about a 2006 report he wrote on those dead bears by agents from the Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General.
JEFF ROOK: We're not sure why the inspector general felt it needed to open an investigation on this. They indicated their allegations. We don't know who they're from or why, after review, they thought this 2006 note was worth assigning criminal investigators to.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Jeff Rook. He's a lawyer with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is providing assistance to Monnett. Rook says yesterday, investigators again quizzed Monnett about that polar bear paper.
ROOK: And they seem to be suggesting there's some sort of conspiracy that involves global warming and back scratching that appears to be, frankly, just nuts.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: As part of his job, Monnett helped manage contracts for government-funded research. Rook says the investigators seemed to accuse Monnett of improperly steering a contract for a new study of polar bears to the University of Alberta. They pointed to the fact that a university scientist who got the contract gave Monnett comments on his polar bear paper.
ROOK: They asked whether there was a quid pro quo or whether there was some connection between him - the University of Alberta professor providing some sort of peer review on the polar bear paper and his getting the award of the contract.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Rook says the investigators focused on one exchange between the two scientists about the polar bear paper that took place on the same day that the research contract was being finalized.
ROOK: That was the big ah-ha moment for them. And if that's all they have, then this has been a colossal waste of time.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Rook says the research contract had been in negotiations for months, that Monnett's supervisors had signed off on it, and that the University of Alberta was the only organization considered because the contract piggybacked on research it was already doing. And while Monnett asked the university scientist to read his soon-to-be famous paper, Rook says others, both agency officials and the scientific journal, reviewed it before it was published.
Officials with the Inspector General's office did not return calls requesting comment. A spokesperson for Monnett's agency has said that the reason he was put on administrative leave has nothing to do with the 2006 polar bear paper.
Some advocacy groups say this whole episode looks like political interference with science. Kassie Siegel is with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that campaigns to have the polar bear listed as a threatened species.
KASSIE SIEGEL: There's no way this can have anything but a chilling effect on the ability of other scientists to carry out their work.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her group has teamed up with Greenpeace to ask the administration for an investigation into this investigation. But others say, don't rush to judgment.
FRANCESCA GRIFO: We won't know until the IG is done, you know, exactly what the charges are and exactly what they're finding.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Francesca Grifo works on scientific integrity issues with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says, in the past, the inspector general's office has actually uncovered political interference with science.
GRIFO: You know, in previous administrations, we've been very grateful for what the inspector generals at Interior have found. They've brought to light a lot of things that, you know, we just wouldn't have known about or been able to document otherwise.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Some polar bear scientists worry that this investigation has created doubt about the threat of climate change. Steve Amstrup is with a group called Polar Bears International. He says Monnett wasn't the only person to have seen those dead polar bears in the water.
STEVE AMSTRUP: But yet, the news that he was being investigated caused some people to right away jump to the conclusion that those observations may be flawed.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says there's no reason to think that. And other research also shows that climate change and retreating sea ice is a real danger for polar bears.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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