Openness can repair Climategate damage

UEA professor says more transparency is needed to rebuild public trust. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 3, 2009

Greater openness will be needed from researchers if they are to regain the public's trust in the wake of the "Climategate" scandal.

That is the message from Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia's School of Environmental Sciences, after its Climatic Research Unit found itself the centre of world attention following the publication of more than 1,000 hacked emails and papers.

The messages have led to accusations that some scientists manipulated data to strengthen the case for man-made climate change, and reveal their lack of co-operation with requests to release their findings under Freedom of Information legislation.

More than 3,000 people have signed a petition on the Downing Street website calling on the Prime Minister to "suspend all further use" of the unit until the allegations are investigated.

Professor Hulme, author of the book Why We Disagree about Climate Change (2009), was copied into some of the messages, which have been seized upon by global-warming sceptics on the eve of a key United Nations summit on climate change as evidence of bias in research.

He said the reality was that "some mistakes have been made and some things could have been done better", adding that he would not "defend tooth and nail everything that has been done".

However, what was most important was that climate scientists learnt from the affair, he added.

"Public trust in what scientists do and how they do it is absolutely crucial," Professor Hulme said.

He added that climate scientists needed to be "less tribal" in attitude and do more to ensure the transparency of their scientific inquiries.

"That is what the public demands and the politicians need, and that is what we as professional scientists should be most concerned about," he said.

"If there have been times when we have not done that, then we need to acknowledge it, accept it and say we will make sure that data are open for scrutiny in the future."

UEA has promised to do all it can to make the data in question public, but writing in Times Higher Education this week, Darrel Ince, professor of computing at The Open University, argues that it should go further. He believes the software and program code used in the centre's research should be released, too. He cautions that the "collateral damage" resulting from the case "may affect us all".

A police investigation is under way into the hacking, and the university announced last week that it would conduct an independent review to address the issue of data security and assess how it responded to FoI requests.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said he would not criticise people who "let off steam" in private emails to their colleagues.

However, he had no sympathy with the fact that the academics involved in the Climategate controversy had tried to prevent the raw data's dissemination.

"It is a natural reaction (given the requests are coming from those trying to undermine their work), but it is not in line with what the FoI Act requires, and it is questionable whether it is in line with what academic life requires," he said.

December 3rd update

The director of UEA’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) has stepped down while an inquiry into the affair is carried out.

Phil Jones said on 2 December that he stood by the science produced by his researchers but would stand aside until a review has been completed.

“What is most important is that CRU continues its world-leading research with as little interruption and diversion as possible,” he said.

“After a good deal of consideration I have decided that the best way to achieve this is by stepping aside from the director's role during the course of the independent review.”

Peter Liss, a professor in the UEA School of Environmental Sciences, will stand in as acting director.

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