Thursday, 1 April 2010

Hacked climate email inquiry cleared Jones but serious questions remain

Climate inquiry has dodged key questions in its rush to clear the name of the harangued head of the Climate Research Unit

Fred Pearce, Wednesday 31 March 2010 07.45 BST

Gaunt, beta-blocked and stood down from duty, Phil Jones is the fall guy for the wider failings that triggered the hacked climate email scandals. But at its hearings into the affair a month ago, the Commons science committee was kind to the director of the Climate Research Unit (CRU), but short-tempered with his grinning sidekick, the University of East Anglia's vice-chancellor Edward Acton.
And so, in their report, Jones gets the benefit of a few doubts. At their final drafting meeting last week, only the MPs' in-house cryptosceptic, Graham Stringer, voted against a sentence saying that, on the evidence they had, "the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact".
Instead, the university administration gets chastised for presiding over a culture of secrecy and possible illegality within the CRU that led to a public relations meltdown.
The MPs are clear that there are serious issues to address both in climate science and in the operation of freedom of information law in British universities. But in their desire not to single out Jones, they end up bending over backwards to support a man who is the pillar of the establishment they are criticising.
Of course, it must have been "frustrating" for Jones to handle freedom of information requests from people "he knew – or perceived – were motivated by a desire simply to undermine his work". But, as the MPs say, his "blunt refusals to share data, even unrestricted data" led to "unfortunate email exchanges" and was "inevitably counterproductive".
The MPs are right to absolve Jones of many of the crimes of which bloggers have accused him. The allegations surrounding his "tricks" and efforts to "hide the decline" are largely malicious inventions.
But, in their rush to judgment before parliament is dissolved for the general election, Phil Willis and his team avoided examining more complex charges, including those raised by the Guardian in its investigations in February.
Even so, they sometimes get confused. The MPs accept Jones's claim that CRU's habit of keeping secret much of its data, methodology and computer codes was "standard practice" among climate scientists. Yet they also note that Nasa scientists doing similar work are much more open. Not so standard, then.
And whatever standard practice may be, surely as one of climate science's senior figures, Jones should take some responsibility for its misdemeanours? Jones has worked for the CRU for more than 20 years and been its director for six. The MPs found there a "culture of withholding information" in which "information may have been deleted to avoid disclosure." It found this "unacceptable". Doesn't its director take responsibility?
The MPs kept their criticism for the university. Its "failure to grasp fully the potential damage [from] non-disclosure of FOIA requests was regrettable".
Also possibly illegal, it might have added.
UEA is rightly in deep doo-doo. The MPs find that its information officers colluded with CRU to subvert legitimate freedom of information requests, and "found ways to support" the culture of secrecy. In a key statement that not even the proliferation of acronyms can disguise, they say: "We must put on record our concern about the manner in which UEA allowed CRU to handle FOIA requests."
The wider research community also has questions to answer. "We recommend that all publicly funded research groups consider whether they are being as open as they can be, and ought to be, with the details of their methodologies," the MPs say. That sounds like a good follow-up for the committee after the general election.
But apart from Acton, the person who will read this report with most gloom, may be Sir Muir Russell, the Scottish grandee appointed by Acton to review the activities of Jones and his colleagues.
The MPs agree with the sceptic Lord Lawson, who gave evidence, that Russell's inquiry should conduct his interviews and hearings "in public wherever possible". Unless Russell has spoken to nobody in the past four months, he evidently is not doing that. They say his inquiry should "publish all written evidence on its website as soon as possible". Yesterday, a month after the deadline for submissions closed, none had been posted.
Worse, the MPs have given him long list of things to investigate or rule on, such as deciding whether emails were deleted in breach of FOI law. Or coming up with rules for CRU on sharing data. And such as deciding whether Jones "subverted the peer-review process". They also suggest that a test of how truly independent the Russell inquiry is will be whether it gives the UEA an advance copy. This story is far from over yet.