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Hacked climate e-mails and FOI

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Martin Rosenbaum | 14:25 UK time, Monday, 23 November 2009

Freedom of information can be a troublesome matter for some academic institutions - and this is well illustrated by the surprising content of some e-mails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and published on the internet a few days ago.

The CRU is a leading centre for the study of climate change and has played a key role in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It's also a focus of criticism for a vociferous band of climate change sceptics, who have started hunting through the large quantity of hacked e-mails with enthusiasm.

Whatever these e-mails may or may not say about climate change is outside the scope of this blog. But they are certainly interesting from the FOI point of view.

I should note that it is not yet possible to confirm beyond doubt that the hacked e-mails are all authentic. However, I have discussed them with the university press office and the CRU's director, Professor Phil Jones, who is the author of many of them. They both say that there are so many documents that they have not yet been able to check that they are all genuine. But it's certainly clear that some are real, and neither the university nor Professor Jones made any attempt to question the authenticity of any of them.

Several of the e-mails suggest that Professor Jones apparently had considerable unease at the requirements of the FOI Act (although I should point out that actually the material involved would be more likely to come under the Environmental Information Regulations, which lay down similar disclosure obligations).

According to one of the hacked e-mails, Professor Jones made the following remark with reference to two of his critics who want access to his data: "If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone."

According to another, he advised a colleague to delete e-mails relating to the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report.

And according to yet another, he wrote: "Think I've managed to persuade UEA to ignore all further FOIA requests if the people have anything to do with Climate Audit."

But perhaps it is the following extracts from this one which best conveys Professor Jones's apparent feelings of coming under siege from information requests:

"When the FOI requests began here, the FOI person said we had to abide by the requests. It took a couple of half hour sessions - one at a screen, to convince them otherwise showing them what CA [Climate Audit] was all about... I don't know who else at UEA may be getting them... We're away of requests going to others in the UK.
"The inadvertent email I sent last month has led to a Data Protection Act request sent by a certain Canadian, saying that the email maligned his scientific credibility with his peers! If he pays 10 pounds (which he hasn't yet) I am supposed to go through my emails and he can get anything I've written about him. About 2 months ago I deleted loads of emails, so have very little - if anything at all. This legislation is different from the FOI - it is supposed to be used to find put why you might have a poor credit rating !
"In response to FOI and EIR requests, we've put up some data - mainly paleo data. Each request generally leads to more - to explain what we've put up. Every time, so far, that hasn't led to anything being added - instead just statements saying read what is in the papers and what is on the web site! ... We've never sent programs, any codes and manuals.
"In the UK, the Research Assessment Exercise results will be out in 2 weeks time. These are expensive to produce and take too much time, so from next year we'll be moving onto a metric based system. The metrics will be # and amounts of grants, papers and citations etc. I did flippantly suggest that the # of FOI requests you get should be another."

When I put the allegation to Professor Jones that the hacked e-mails suggested he had supported deleting e-mails in breach of FOI, he said: "We haven't deleted any emails. I delete my own personal emails a year at a time regardless of subject as I have too many, but the university still has the emails."

Professor Jones also told me that he concurs with the view expressed by some other academics that freedom of information may be too intrusive into academic matters. He said: "My e-mails were personal. This is all about academic freedom. I'm just a humble scientist trying to do research."

The University of East Anglia denies that its FOI team reached an agreement with Professor Jones to "ignore" certain information requests. Its spokesperson told me:

"In some areas, there are persistent and motivated groups or individuals whose applications create a volume of work which is extremely demanding. Nonetheless, we try to respond to all such requests within our guidelines."

It adds that it consulted the Information Commissioner's Office on how to handle a large number of similar requests for climate data.

According to its latest published caseload [166KB PDF], the ICO is investigating one complaint against UEA over a request for "information about research, reviews, conclusions and reports into climate change studies".


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