Research intelligence - Climate of change

The outlook is good as East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit seeks to share its data. Paul Jump reports

August 19, 2010

The University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit has moved quickly to address recent criticism of its levels of transparency with a project that it hopes will herald a new era of accessibility in the presentation of climate data.

Three inquiries into the so-called Climategate scandal, in which CRU scientists were accused of being less than open with their critics, cleared the unit of any scientific failings, but the Commons Science and Technology Committee was critical of its reluctance to make its supporting data available.

Trevor Davies, pro vice-chancellor for research, enterprise and engagement at UEA and a former director of the CRU, accepted that the unit had not been "as helpful as we should have been" in answering requests for more data, and said it was keen to make amends.

The new project fits into an existing programme involving eight universities that aims to manage research data more effectively.

Simon Hodson, programme manager at the Joint Information Systems Committee, which helps to develop IT schemes in UK higher education and is funding the project, said the aim was "to impress on researchers, publishers and institutions the value of data as a primary output of research, and the foundation on which we base any legitimate findings".

He said a lot of information submitted to the research councils' data centres was not reusable because the statistical algorithms used to clean it up had not been recorded.

"We need those explanations as an early and natural part of the research process," he said.

Tim Osborn, an academic Fellow at the CRU, insisted that a lot of its output data were already available, but said that the unit had previously taken the view that other researchers would be more interested in trying to reproduce the results using different raw data rather than repeating everything the CRU had done.

"Traditionally, what we did in papers was to explain the source of data (such as tree-ring growth), describe the methods of analysis and make the output datasets available," he said. "That is because you learn less from repeatability than from reproducibility. But people used the fact that you couldn't repeat our results to cast doubt on them."

He said the CRU would work with the Science and Technology Facilities Council's e-Science Centre over the next 12 months to develop a set of techniques to track how raw data are processed and link them to the resulting journal articles.

"We will use a linked approach to record the options and settings we used to process our data," he said. "There will be links between the data and the programs we used to process them. That way, another centre could link its results to our dataset and to its particular program for processing it. You don't want multiple copies of the same data: this way you can be sure it is the same dataset."

Standardised method

All the datasets will be freely available online, but Dr Osborn said that this was not merely to "service the climate-sceptic community": rather, it aimed to develop a standardised method of annotating results that could be applied across the climate research community and beyond.

"We want to provide useful outcomes for people who want to move the science forward without saying that we are a bunch of frauds," he said.

"Other climate scientists may want to tweak our algorithms to see if they get anything different, for instance."

Professor Davies said the project would also embellish datasets on temperature records with "metadata" on such issues as whether the relevant weather stations or time of day the readings had been taken had changed.

He insisted that UEA welcomed "the opportunity for greater scrutiny" and was confident the project would strengthen public confidence in the CRU's science.

Professor Davies also made a plea to critics of the unit's work: "When you have access to the data, please point out where you think there are shortcomings," he said.

Dr Hodson is also grateful for the boost he believes Climategate has given to open data and open science.

"The blogosphere has given a good push in that direction, but it is tendentious and not always scientific," he said. "We hope this project will act as a corrective to the misleading stories in the press and allow all the data to be tested properly."

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