Science

U of Alberta distances self from U.S. researcher

A U.S. scientist is being investigated for how he handled research contracts, including one that has gone to a prominent polar bear researcher from the University of Alberta.
A polar bear poses for the camera near Churchill, Man., in November 2007. Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The University of Alberta is distancing itself from a U.S. scientist who is being investigated for how he handled research contracts, including one that has gone to a prominent polar bear researcher from the Edmonton institution.

The study tracking polar bears recently restarted following a stop-work order issued by American officials last month, said university spokesman Jamie Hanlon.

"Pursuant to their investigation, the United States Department of the Interior's inspector general's office contacted the University of Alberta on July 13, 2011, to issue a 'stop-work' order on a research project, funded by the U.S. government, being conducted by University of Alberta biologist Andrew Derocher," Hanlon said in an email.

"The University of Alberta complied and co-operated fully. A 'notice-to-proceed' order was issued by the investigating office on Aug. 1, 2011, for Derocher to resume his study."

American Arctic biologist Charles Monnett has been under investigation in the U.S. for weeks over his handling of about $50 million in government research funding. American investigators have told Monnett that the research contract with the University of Alberta was among their concerns.

Hanlon said the university has no legal relationship with Monnett.

"It was a contract that was awarded by the U.S. government," he said.

Monnett's 2004 aerial observation of four dead and presumably drowned polar bears floating in Arctic waters was published in a peer-reviewed journal and became a powerful talking point for those fighting climate change.

The paper suggested the bears drowned in rough seas and high winds. It suggested that more polar bears could drown as Arctic sea ice continues to retreat, which is commonly considered one of the main effects of climate change.

An American advocacy group has suggested Monnett is being investigated as a consequence of that paper. The U.S. is currently considering allowing Arctic offshore drilling.

Derocher is tracking polar bears on the Beaufort Sea north of the Northwest Territories. The work has been going on since 2005 and has also received funding from the Canadian government.

Derocher told the online science journal Nature.com that he was surprised by the controversy.

"To begin with, I thought it was related to budgetary issues in the United States. I've never seen anything like this in my life," he told the publication.

He has confirmed to Nature.com that his research has now resumed.

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