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Climate e-mails review condemns lack of openness

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Martin Rosenbaum | 13:14 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010


There was "an ethos of minimal compliance (and at times non-compliance)" with both the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit.

The unit's "responses to reasonable requests for information were unhelpful and defensive".

Screenshot Independent Review reportThat, in terms of access to information, is the main conclusion of the Independent Review of the conduct of the scientists involved in what became known as the "climategate" e-mails affair, which has been published today.

Chaired by Sir Muir Russell, this is the third inquiry report into the controversial revelations following the hacking last November of large quantities of e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit. The unit has played a key role in the international development of climate science.

Today's review calls for a transformation of attitudes amongst the university's senior staff. It argues:

"Public trust in science depends on an inherent culture of honesty, rigour and transparency. The requirements of FoIA and EIR must not be seen as impositions. They are a necessary part of the implicit contract between the scientist and broader society."

The report identifies major flaws in how the scientists and the university administration responded to information requests. The lessons it draws out raise important questions on how freedom of information can apply to academics, scientists and researchers. And some of its conclusions have implications for how all public authorities handle FOI applications.

The review's serious criticisms of the CRU's approach to information requests include the following findings:

"evidence that e-mails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them";
"a tendency to answer the wrong question or to give a partial answer";
"clear incitement to delete e-mails".

While the review strongly criticises the conduct of those scientists who refused to embrace a culture of openness, it is important to note that it also places much of the blame on the broader university administration. It argues that the university's senior management should have accepted more responsibility for implementing compliance with FOI.

One of the most interesting passages concerns the role of UEA's Information Policy and Compliance Manager. The review argues that this post needs to be given more power within the university. It found that "the IPCM may have lacked such standing within the university structure and the authority to challenge the assertions of senior professors".

This point has wider ramifications of significance to all public authorities. A phenomenon familiar to anyone with much experience of FOI is that of a comparatively junior FOI officer struggling to persuade more senior colleagues elsewhere in the organisation that the information they hold really should be released, no matter how annoying the requester is and how uncomfortable the disclosure would be.

In another finding of wider importance, the review stresses that "earlier action to release information" might have minimised later problems. Although the CRU did eventually face a barrage of very similar applications, co-ordinated via a climate sceptic's website, this happened after it had already established a pattern of unhelpfulness in dealing with the earlier, far more limited number of requests.

The review notes that the unit encountered an orchestrated campaign of information requests, but concludes that "CRU helped create the conditions for this campaign by being unhelpful in its earlier responses to individual requests for station identifiers and the locations from which specific, detailed station raw data could be downloaded."

The report will be read carefully, and perhaps with some concern, by other academic researchers, some of whom (particularly those working in controversial areas) are worried about potential implications of FOI.

The review calls on the Information Commissioner's Office to hold consultations on how to distinguish research data which is accepted in the scientific community to validate findings and should be released from other more preliminary drafts and plans.

The review paints a picture of a team of researchers who were dismissive and unhelpful towards outsiders requesting information, and who ended up creating more problems for themselves through this level of obstruction.

It portrays the university administration generally as insufficiently rigorous and focused in applying legal requirements on access to information.

And it constitutes a powerful warning to other academic institutions that openness has to become a deeper part of how they operate.

Update 1455: In reaction to the Sir Muir Russell review, the UEA Vice-Chancellor Edward Acton has accepted criticism of the university's treatment of information requests. He said:

"We accept the report's conclusion that we could and should have been more proactively open, not least because - as this exhaustive report makes abundantly clear - we have nothing to hide. We accept the need for our response to Freedom of Information requests to be positive and appropriate and we are confident that steps we have already taken in this area will improve further the awareness and understanding of the importance of the Act within the University."

Professor Acton also draws attention to how the report's conclusions affect the whole academic community. He says there are broad implications for the accessibility of research in the UK which will have to be considered by the Information Commissioner's Office and others.

I think he is right on this and I suspect this may turn out to be the real long-term legacy of Sir Muir Russell's review - moves towards opening up research material and data to those the academic community have regarded as outsiders. This is a process which many scientists and researchers will feel uneasy about, particularly when it covers work in progress rather than the finished output of their efforts.

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