JUNEAU, Alaska — Just five years ago, Charles Monnett was one of the scientists whose observation that several polar bears had drowned in the Arctic Ocean helped galvanize the global warming movement.
Now, the wildlife biologist is on administrative leave and facing accusations of scientific misconduct.
The federal agency where he works told him he's being investigated for "integrity issues," but a watchdog group believes it has to do with the 2006 journal article about the bear.
The group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, filed a complaint on his behalf Thursday with the agency, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Investigators have not yet told Monnett of the specific charges or questions related to the scientific integrity of his work, said Jeff Ruch, the watchdog group's executive director.
A BOEMRE spokeswoman, Melissa Schwartz, said there was an "ongoing internal investigation" but declined to get into specifics.
Whatever the outcome, the investigation comes at a time when climate change activists and those who are skeptical about global warming are battling over the credibility of scientists' work.
Members of both sides, however, said that it was too early to make any pronouncements about the case, particularly since the agency has not yet released the details of the allegations against him.
Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the case reinforces the group's position that people should be more skeptical about the work of climate change scientists.
Even if every scientist is objective, "what we're being asked to do is turn our economy around and spend trillions and trillions of dollars on the basis of" climate change claims, he said.
Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said she's not alarmed by the handling of the case so far.
Beyond the climate change debate, the investigation also focuses attention on an Obama administration policy intended to protect scientists from political interference.
The complaint seeks Monnett's reinstatement and a public apology from the agency and inspector general, whose office is conducting the probe.
Monnett could not immediately be reached Thursday.
His wife, Lisa Rotterman, a fellow scientist who worked with Monnett for years, including at BOEMRE's predecessor agency, said the case did not come out of the blue.
Rotterman said Monnett had come under fire in the past within the agency for speaking the truth about what the science showed. She said the 2006 article wasn't framed in the context of climate change but was relevant to the topic.
She feared what happened to Monnett would send a "chilling message" at the agency just as important oil and gas development decisions in the Arctic will soon be made.
"I don't believe the timing is coincidental," she said.