Climategate - the Select Committee reports
Peer review or Pal review? MPs don't want to know
A Parliamentary committee has found the University of East Anglia's two "independent" enquiries into Climategate mildly troubling in parts – but says everyone should keep calm and carry on, only with a little more transparency.
The MPs on the Select Committee on Science acknowledge they were misled by University of East Anglia Vice-Chancellor Lord Acton.
When they appeared in November 2009, the collection of emails and source code from the UEA's Climatic Research Unit showed prima facie evidence of serious scientific misconduct – including subverting the peer-review process, deletion of emails in response to FOIA requests, withholding data, and the inability to reproduce their own results. In one email, CRU's director Phil Jones vowed to keep two opposing papers out of the scientific literature, "even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is !".
Following the scandal, UEA set up two "independent" enquiries, one into the issues of conduct raised (the Independent Climate Change Email Review, or ICCER) headed by Sir Muir Russell, and one into the science (the Scientific Assessment Panel, or SAP) headed by Lord Ron Oxburgh.
(Oxburgh's appointment raised eyebrows at the time, you may recall – an investor in renewable energy, he failed to disclose all his interests in his Parliamentary register.)
The two reports varied in length, with SAP running to just five pages. The longer ICCER report found some troubling issues, but gave the academics the benefit of the doubt. Neither committee sought to interview any of the subjects of the emails. Even the Guardian newspaper called Russell and Oxburgh's reports "badly flawed". Russell's team said they could find no evidence of deleting emails in response to FOIA requests, for example, and it transpired the University had failed to send the damning emails requesting staff to delete emails (subject line: FOIA) to Russell's team. The Global Warming Policy Foundation's review of the reviews accusing Oxburgh and Russell's work was "rushed and seriously inadequate". This is reflected in a minority opinion by Select Committee member Graham Stringer MP, in text that was rejected from the final report by majority opinion. More on that below.
One of the strongest criticisms is aimed at Oxburgh's five-pager. What Oxburgh told the press and Parliament he was going to do, differs from later accounts, as the UEA admitted. As the Committee notes, "the scope and purpose of the SAP review appeared to change from an examination of the integrity of the science to the integrity of the scientists – and as a results there has been some confusion".
Oxburgh blamed the change of tack on time pressure from the University – which "really wanted something within a month," said Oxburgh – and MPs were not impressed by this explanation.
"Had the SAP been in less of a rush, they could have investigated the integrity of the science with more rigour, particularly with regard to scientists’ ability to repeat their own experimental work ... When compared to the ICCER, the SAP report – a mere five pages – reads like an executive summary, with none of the detail of the ICCER," they note. "It does foster an impression that it was not as thorough as the ICCER and was produced quickly in an attempt to be helpful to UEA."
Russell receives some criticism for not probing the deletion of emails – which the police described as prima facie evidence of a criminal act.
"We are concerned that [ICCER] did not fully investigate the serious allegation relating to the deletion of emails. We find it unsatisfactory that we are left with a verbal reassurance from the Vice-Chancellor that the emails still exist," the Select Committee notes.
And the Committee fails to find much fault with Russell's treatment of peer review. It cites three "examples" of the CRU academics apparently bullying journal editors into refraining from publishing views with which they disagree, but support his analysis. "We stand by this conclusion and are satisfied with the detailed analysis of the allegations by the ICCER."
"In our view it is time to make the changes and improvements recommended and with greater openness and transparency move on," the Committee concludes.
Andrew Montford, who produced a report critical of the Russell and Oxburgh enquiries, said MPs had failed to examine the allegations of intellectual corruption – the knobbling of the "peer review" process. He told us:
If peer review is bent against the skeptical scientists, then there's a question mark over the whole IPCC process. The defence made on their behalf is flimsy to the point of vanishing, their word is accepted every time. None of the reports have investigated the basic allegations raised by the emails.
Britain is one of the biggest funders of the UN's IPCC process. In 2008, Defra (now the Department for Energy and Climate Change) said it had paid £1.4m to just one IPCC working group, a number it has since revised to just over £540.000.
A strongly worded text from Graham Stringer MP was voted out of the final report. In it, he says the enquiries were too close to CRU itself Russell didn't interview CRU director Phil Jones, delegating instead to long-time CRU insider Geoffrey Boulton, who had been a UEA employee for 20 years.
Stringer wanted to include the following text:
“There are proposals to increase worldwide taxation by up to a trillion dollars on the basis of climate science predictions. This is an area where strong and opposing views are held. The release of the emails from CRU at the University of East Anglia and the accusations that followed demanded independent and objective scrutiny by independent panels. This has not happened. The composition of the two panels has been criticised for having members who were over-identified with the views of CRU. Lord Oxburgh as President of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and Chairman of Falck Renewable appeared to have a conflict of interest. Lord Oxburgh himself was aware that this might lead to criticism. Similarly Professor Boulton as an ex-colleague of CRU seemed wholly inappropriate to be a member of the Russell panel.
No reputable scientist who was critical of CRU’s work was on the panel, and prominent and distinguished critics were not interviewed. The Oxburgh panel did not do as our predecessor committee had been promised, investigate the science, but only looked at the integrity of the researchers. With the exception of Professor Kelly’s notes, other notes taken by members of the panel have not been published. This leaves a question mark against whether CRU science is reliable. The Oxburgh panel also did not look at CRU’s controversial work on the IPPC, which is what has attracted most serious allegations. Russell did not investigate the deletion of emails. We are now left after three investigations without a clear understanding of whether or not the CRU science is compromised.
CRU director Phil Jones returned to his old post last July. ®