Harrabin's Notes: Getting to the bottom of Climategate
- 5 July 2010
- From the section Science & Environment
In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin looks at the series of inquiries into the "climategate" controversy at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
The Scottish grandee Sir Muir Russell will soon deliver the third and final inquiry report on UEA e-mail affair, in which researchers were accused of cheating over climate science.
The first inquiry, conducted by MPs, cleared the UEA scientists of wrong-doing.
So did the second inquiry, from Lord Oxburgh in conjunction with the Royal Society.
But the tripartite review process has left critics dissatisfied.
This is a tale of three inquiries and the scientific establishment which arranged them.
Between them, the investigations were expected to examine all important aspects of the so-called Climategate affair.
But climate sceptics believe they have been short changed.
We will get a Commons report about the process of the scrutiny of UEA; the Oxburgh report on whether the scientists involved should be disciplined over their published papers; and the Muir Russell review into the hacked e-mails.
But we won't have had an inquiry into the validity of UEA's climate science itself.
Critics suspect a whitewash to hide flaws in climate science, but my own lengthy investigations into the background to the inquiries have found no smoking gun.
I have, though, uncovered many inconsistencies - the sort of inconsistencies that look like informality to the science authorities, and conspiracy to climate sceptics.
I conclude that although many scientists say their work has benefited from the public debate generated by Climategate, the scientific establishment has not fully adjusted to the inevitability of scrutiny from the blogosphere and its demands for increased "democratisation" of science.
I have found inconsistencies in two main areas.
First is the remit for the Oxburgh panel itself, which was set up by the UEA in conjunction with the Royal Society and christened the Science Assessment Panel.
The Commons science committee said the panel led by Lord Oxburgh would examine the validity of the climate science at UEA.
The MPs drew this conclusion from evidence they took in committee. This stirred excitement among climate sceptics.
But they did not know that the university's pro-vice chancellor Trevor Davies had actually given Oxburgh a much narrower verbal brief - not to assess UEA climate science overall, but to investigate whether the UEA scientists had done wrong.
Lord Oxburgh's review was still to be called the Science Assessment Panel, but actually it had become a disciplinary assessment panel.
UEA explained that it needed a swift response to determine whether it should launch disciplinary proceedings against the scientists (who were quickly cleared of malpractice by the inquiry).
But sceptics' suspicions were raised by the mismatch between the panel's activities and its title.
And Lord Willis, former chairman of the Commons Science Committee, told me he was unhappy that no broad enquiry would now be done to re-assure the public about the validity of climate science.
He said it was a mistake for UEA to be involved in setting up the inquiries into allegations against its staff.
The second set of Oxburgh anomalies I found concerns the list of scientific papers chosen for his panel to review.
The inquiry's report said that the papers had been selected "on the advice of" the Royal Society. Lord Oxburgh stands by that statement.
But others question whether the wording was appropriate.
Here's why: a previous UEA press release announced that the list of paper had in fact been selected by UEA in conjunction with the society.
What does "in conjunction" mean?
In this case, UEA's Professor Davies passed on the list chosen by the university for approval by the Royal Society, asserting that it included the most controversial UEA papers.
A couple of society Fellows signed off the list after a brief email exchange, even though neither of them was expert in UEA science - and the list was sent on to Lord Oxburgh.
'Lack of care'
Two determined bloggers, Steve McIntyre and Andrew Montford, have been trying to unpick this process. They think it looks at least slack, possibly worse.
But do the anomalies really matter?
Lord Oxburgh said the society had given him the scope to examine whatever extra papers he wanted in the course of the review.
He confirmed that his team did indeed read widely, although he said he had not kept a record of what exactly had been read - an omission which infuriates his critics.
The bloggers complain of an apparently shifting remit, ambiguous communication and lack of due care by the Royal Society itself.
They say the UEA list of papers did not include the most controversial ones from their viewpoint - and it was the bloggers' queries that sparked the whole UEA crisis.
Critics also complain that the Oxburgh review did not investigate UEA's links with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), especially over the drawing of the controversial "hockey stick" graph on global temperature rise.
There is clearly a gulf in expectation between the two sides in this affair.
The scientific establishment is not used to having its proceedings pulled apart by gadfly inquisitors, often armed with Freedom of Information e-mail chains.
Privately, some senior scientists say they find this relentless probing to be nit-picking, mistrustful, obsessive and corrosive of public trust.
They see it as a waste of time, and therefore of public money.
All the scientific players involved with the Oxburgh review - UEA, Royal Society and Lord Oxburgh himself - insist that they have behaved in an open and honourable way.
Lord Oxburgh response
Lord Oxburgh himself explains the situation this way in an e-mail to me.
He wrote: "I really can't get very worked up about all this!
"There is an underlying presumption of a formality to our activities that simply wasn't there.
"(Critics) are attaching an unrealistic significance to the original list of publications.
"We did not bother unduly about the origin of the list of papers - it reached us via the university and we understood simply that it was the outcome of UEA/Royal Society discussions.
"Willis certainly had no authority to change our remit.
"Such a request was not passed on to us and if it had been I would have resisted, because to meet it would have required a different committee."
The Muir Russell review is planned to set the seal on this long Climategate affair, which has surely been damaging to science but one thing is for certain - the panel will not examine the validity of the UEA climate science overall.
A spokesman for Muir Russell told me recently this was a matter for the Oxburgh Panel - a puzzling comment considering that the Oxburgh review clearly did nothing of the sort.
To the scientific mainstream this has all been a massive distraction.
They point out recent research suggesting that 98% of leading climate scientists are convinced that human activities are warming the planet.
But to critics there is still plenty of room for debate on the details.
And if it wants to avoid a long-running asymmetrical war with the bloggers, establishment science may need to change the way it does some of its business.
- Since this article was published, the University of East Anglia has told the BBC that it asked the Panel chaired by Lord Oxburgh to consider whether "data had been dishonestly selected, manipulated and/or presented to arrive at pre-determined conclusions that were not compatible with a fair interpretation of the original data". The university says it is not true that Professor Davies subsequently asked Lord Oxburgh to adopt a "narrower brief" of any kind.