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ClimateGate affair: 'Learn and move on', say MPs

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News

image captionCritics said weather station data was mislaid or hidden, though the reviews found otherwise

Inquiries into issues raised by 2009's climate e-mail hack did have flaws, a committee of MPs concludes.

But despite questions over remits and omissions, they say it is time to make the changes needed and move on.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee does not find anything to challenge the prevailing view of human-induced global warming.

But it says data should be more open, and rules on how Freedom of Information (FoI) applies to science need reform.

However, critics of the various inquiries said it was still unclear whether climate science had been compromised.

The committee reviewed two inquiries set up by the University of East Anglia (UEA) following the so-called "ClimateGate" affair - the theft, and subsequent online posting, of e-mails and other documents relating to the work of its Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in late 2009, just before the pivotal UN climate conference in Copenhagen.

The unit's work has been instrumental in elucidating the Earth's historical temperature record - which is needed in order to evaluate the scale of present-day changes.

One inquiry, chaired by former geologist and Shell chairman Lord Oxburgh, assessed the integrity of research at CRU.

The second, with former civil servant Sir Muir Russell at the helm, was convened to look for evidence of malpractice within CRU, review its procedures for acquiring and processing data, examine practice on responding to FoI requests and make recommendations for management reform.

'Traumatic' process

"The disclosure of data from CRU has been traumatic and challenging for all involved," says the committee's report.

"While we have some reservations about the reviews which UEA commissioned, the key point is that they have made a number of constructive recommendations.

"In our view it is time to make the changes and improvements recommended, and with greater openness and transparency move on."

The committee's reservations largely centre on the establishment of Lord Oxburgh's review early last year.

On 1 March, the university's vice-chancellor Professor Edward Acton said the review's remit was "to reassess the science and make sure there is nothing wrong".

But later the same month, a press release from the university used the phrasing: "[to] examine important elements of the published science" of CRU.

Critics have alleged this meant the original remit was watered down, from an examination of research quality to one of integrity.

Lord Oxburgh told the committee the original statement "was innaccurate"; and Professor Acton agreed that his wording was open to different interpretations.

The committee concludes that the most reasonable interpretation would have included examination of "the quality of the science as well as the integrity".

Committee chairman Andrew Miller MP said this confused picture had allowed people "who doubt the prevailing interpretation of climate science" to find the situation unsatisfactory.

image captionCRU data has been crucial in designing and validating computer models of the climate system

"There is a contradiction," he told BBC News.

"You have UEA telling us one thing about the purpose of the Oxburgh review, and Oxburgh saying 'hang on a minute, if our job had been to drill down into the science, it would have needed to be an entirely different committee'."

The committee also criticises the brevity of the review, concluding its work in three weeks with a five-page report that "reads like an executive summary".

Speaking to BBC News, Lord Oxburgh said the timescale had been adequate for the task.

"We were asked a question by the university which we had to give a judgement on," he said.

"And I don't think it would have been different if we'd spent three or five times as long."

He also rejected criticism that his committee considered only 11 scientific papers from CRU's output, saying members had "read widely".

The main criticism of the Muir Russell process is that it failed to investigate fully the allegation that CRU staff had deleted e-mails "to frustrate [FoI] requests for information".

It would have preferred both processes to have been more open.

Science backed

Professor Phil Jones, CRU director at the time of the "ClimateGate" affair and the scientist most often vilified in connection with it, emerges as someone badly treated during the months of acrimony that seared the synapses of the World Wide Web.

"We're not pointing our fingers at Phil Jones or any other named individual, because as the recommendations of the two inquiries have suggested, they were operating in a world that was not used to this kind of process of disclosure," said Mr Miller.

The university has already implemented recommendations from the reviews, including setting up new procedures for dealing with FoI requests.

"UEA notes the Select Committee's conclusion that the two reviews which, along with at least two other independent reports, exonerated our scientists of any wrongdoing, produced 'clear and sensible' recommendations, many of which we have already implemented," the university said in a statement.

"We particularly welcome the committee's call for urgent resolution of how the Freedom of Information Act should be applied to scientific research, as this remains a grey area - and its view that it is time to move on."

But Andrew Montfort, a climate "sceptic" who wrote a report on the inquiries for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, chaired by Lord Lawson, said the public did not yet know whether science from CRU could be trusted.

"[Moving on] may be what suits most politicians, but the public deserve to know the truth," he said.

"The committee have turned a blind eye to the abundant evidence of wrongdoing at UEA and in the 'ClimateGate' inquiries."

However, Mr Miller said further inquiries were not indicated: instead, it was time to implement the recommended changes and improve the practices of climate science as much as possible.

The report noted without demur the evidence put by UK Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington to the effect that "the general issues on overall global temperature, on sea level and so on, are all pretty unequivocal".

In addition to the Oxburgh and Muir Russell inquiries, a review by the previous incarnation of the Science and Technology Committee in March last year also found nothing to criticise in CRU's scientific output.

And other recent reviews of climate science, including one by the Dutch government and one by the InterAcademy Council (an international network of science academies) also concluded that recent controversies had done nothing to challenge the prevailing view of human-induced climate change.

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