Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Scientists cleared of malpractice in UEA's hacked emails inquiry

Researchers 'dedicated if slightly disorganised', but basic science was fair, finds inquiry commissioned by university

David Adam and James Randerson, Wednesday 14 April 2010 11.11 BST

The scientists at the centre of the row over the hacked climate emails have been cleared of any deliberate malpractice by the second of three inquiries into their conduct.
The inquiry panel, led by the former chair of the House of Lords science and technology select committee Lord Oxburgh, was commissioned by the University of East Anglia with investigating the research produced by the scientists at its Climatic Research Unit (CRU).
The work of the unit has come under intense scrutiny since November when thousands of private emails between the researchers were released onto the internet. At a press conference earlier today Lord Oxburgh said, "Whatever was said in the emails, the basic science seems to have been done fairly and properly," although his panel did criticise the scientists for not using the best statistical techniques at times.
The report concluded: "We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it. Rather we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention. As with many small research groups their internal procedures were rather informal."
In a formal response to the report the UEA wrote: "It is gratifying to us that the Oxburgh report points out that CRU has done a public service of great value by carrying out meticulous work on temperature records when it was unfashionable and attracted little scientific interest, and that the unit has been among the leaders in international efforts to determine the overall uncertainty in the derived temperature records."
The panel was not tasked specifically with looking at the way CRU handled access to its data and Freedom of Information requests from members of the public but it commented that there were "a host of important unresolved questions" arising from the application of FoI to academic research. "We agree with the CRU view that the authority for releasing unpublished raw data to third parties should stay with those who collected it," the report said.
It did criticise the government's policy of charging for access to data. "This is unfortunate and seems inconsistent with policies of open access to data promoted elsewhere in government."
The panel did raise doubts about the statistical input into scientific papers authored by researchers at CRU. "We cannot help remarking that it is very surprising that research in an area that depends so heavily on statistical methods has not been carried out in close collaboration with professional statisticians," it concluded.
In UEA's formal response it noted: "Specialists in many areas of research acquire and develop the statistical skills pertinent to their own particular data analysis requirements. However, we do see the sense in engaging more fully with the wider statistics community to ensure that the most effective and up-to-date statistical techniques are adopted and will now consider further how best to achieve this."
The University of East Anglia set up and funded the review in March. The appointment of Oxburgh, who is a former industry scientist and academic has been criticised by some who are suspicious of CRU's work. He is currently president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and has business interests in wind energy so critics have alleged that he has a vested interested in defending the science of climate change. Oxburgh denies that the review panel had a pre-conceived opinion about the science.
His is the second of three inquiries into the release of private emails from researchers at UEA. The first, by the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee criticised UEA for not tackling a "culture of withholding information" among the scientists. It did not blame CRU or Prof Phil Jones for these failings and concluded that his scientific reputation was untarnished. Third inquiry into the hacked emails, headed by Sir Muir Russel, who was appointed by UEA in December to look at four key allegations arising from the correspondence, is due to report shortly.
The members of Oxburgh's panel were: Prof Huw Davies at ETH Zurich, Prof Kerry Emanual at MIT, Prof Lisa Graumlich of the University of Arizona, Prof David Hand of Imperial College London, and Prof Herbert Huppert and Prof Michael Kelly at the University of Cambridge.
• You can read Fred Pearce's full investigation into the hacked climate emails here.