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Climategate Scandal Risks Undermining Reputation of Science

The row sparked by the leak of climate change emails from a British university has the potential to “undermine” the reputation of science as a whole, two respected scientific organisations have warned.

Climate change researchers at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) are accused of withholding raw data and the computer code they used to generate results despite repeated requests for the information to be released publicly.

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) have both issued statements declaring that it is essential that scientific data and evidence compiled by researchers be made publicly available for scrutiny.

Their comments come after the Institute of Physics said that emails sent by Professor Phil Jones, head of the CRU, had broken “honourable scientific traditions” about disclosing raw data and methods.

In a written submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the disclosure of data from the CRU, the RSC said a lack of willingness to disclose research data had “far-reaching consequences”.

It also called for an “independent auditing system” to ensure scientists stick to best practice during the peer review process that is usually used to assess the quality of science before it is published in scientific journals.

Professor Jones and his colleagues were accused of attempting to corrupt the peer review process after the leaked emails revealed comments he made about the work of other scientists.

The professor denies that he tried to prevent these alternative views from being published, but the emails revealed statements that suggest he used his position as an anonymous reviewer to “reject” papers that criticised his own work.

The RSC said: “The apparent resistance of researchers from the CRU at the University of East Anglia to disclose research data has been widely portrayed as an indication of a lack of integrity in scientific research.

“The true nature of science dictates that research is transparent and robust enough to survive scrutiny.

“A lack of willingness to disseminate scientific information may infer that the scientific results or methods used are not robust enough to face scrutiny, even if this conjecture is not well-founded.

“This has far-reaching consequences for the reputation of science as a whole, with the ability to undermine the public’s confidence in science.

“The RSC firmly believes that the benefits of scientific data being made available and thus open to scrutiny outweigh the perceived risks.

“It may also be necessary to incorporate an independent auditing system into peer review with the ability to demand access to raw data sets to ensure best practices are being adhered to.”

The RSS also said it was crucial that data on global warming, the analysis methods and the models used to make predictions about climate change should be placed in the public domain to allow experiments and calculations to be repeated and verified.

In its submission to the MPs’ inquiry it said: “The position of the RSS regarding public dissemination of scientific data is that where the results of scientific analyses have been published or are otherwise in the public domain, the raw data, and associated metadata, used for these analyses should, within reason, also be made available.”

The society added that such scientific information could be stored in special data centres set up for that purpose.

But Professor Jones, speaking in front of the Common’s committee, said such release of information was not standard practice among climate scientists and that some of the data could not be released as it belonged to national weather services in other countries who had refused permission to publish it.

Dr Don Keiller, deputy head of life sciences at Anglia Ruskin University, however, claims that Professor Jones and his colleagues conspired to withhold information in case it was used to criticise them.

He said: “What these emails reveal is a detailed and systematic conspiracy to prevent other scientists gaining access to CRU data sets. Such obstruction strikes at the very heart of the scientific method, that is the scrutiny and verification of data and results by one’s peers.”

Professor Darrel Ince, from the department of computer science at the Open University, added: “A number of climate scientists have refused to publish their computer programs; what I want to suggest is that this is both unscientific behaviour and, equally importantly ignores a major problem: that scientific software has got a poor reputation for error.”

The Sunday Telegraph, 7 March 2010