FoI guidance aims to avoid 'Climategate' II

October 7, 2010

A task force is being established to draft a set of guidelines on how universities should respond to Freedom of Information Act requests in the wake of the "Climategate" affair.

The University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit came under intense global scrutiny earlier this year after hacked documents and emails written by its scientists led to allegations that they had deliberately overstated the case for man- made climate change.

An independent review into the affair cleared the scientists of wrongdoing, but criticised the university for its "unhelpful and defensive" attitude when faced with reasonable FoI requests.

The review, led by Sir Muir Russell, former vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow, ruled in July that UEA had not acted in a way "consistent with the spirit or intent" of FoI laws, and had "failed to recognise...the risk to the reputation of the university and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science".

In response to the review's recommendation that universities receive better advice on FoI from the Information Commissioner's Office, Universities UK has created a task force to address the issue.

A meeting between UUK and the body was held last week and chaired by David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham. It concluded that universities needed sector-specific guidance to comply with the law.

A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner's Office said: "We acknowledge the challenges that research units face, often because FoI requests relate to material that may span several years of research. Nonetheless, all requests must be handled in line with the legislation."

UUK will now appoint a panel to help draw up the guidelines.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society's latest guide to climate science tones down statements on humanity's contribution to global warming made in its previous document on the subject and axes predictions about the impact of climate change.

The new guide, Climate Change: a Summary of the Science, adds that "some uncertainties are unlikely ever to be significantly reduced".

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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