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Yesterday I watched the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee questioning Lord Oxburgh. Once the official transcript becomes available I expect that this will cause quite a stir. If there was any doubt before that his inquiry was a fiasco, then there can be none now.

What follows are a few notes based on listening to a recording rather carefully last night.

At the outset, Oxburgh made it very clear that he had been most unwilling to take on the job of chairing the review panel when the University of East Anglia (UEA) asked him, however he had eventually been persuaded.  Why the university had been so persistent in their overtures, rather than just looking elsewhere, was not explored, but perhaps it will be at some point in the future.

In the early stages of the committee session it was quickly established that, although the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Professor Acton, had told the previous Science and Technology Select Committee that he was about to announce a review that would ‘reassess the science [at CRU] and make sure that there is nothing wrong’, Oxburgh was given no such instructions. Instead he was asked merely to consider the honesty and integrity of the scientists.

Nevertheless, the review panel was provided with a list of eleven papers published by CRU scientists on which to base their judgement. Graham Stringer attempted to find out how these papers had been chosen and by whom, which is rather important. Sceptics have pointed out that whoever did choose them steered well clear of the research findings that awkward questions have been asked about.

This is what happened:

Stringer: Can you tell us how you chose the eleven publications from the Climatic Research Unit?

Oxburgh: ‘Err … we didn’t choose the publications, they were … [starts again] Basically what I said that we needed was something that would provide a pretty good introduction to the work of the unit as it had evolved over the years. And the publications were suggested to us, came via the university, but via the university and the Royal Society I believe. We feel, and let me emphasise they were just a start, because all of us were novices in this area, I think we all felt that they gave us a very good introduction. From then we moved on, we looked at other publications, we asked for raw materials and things of that kind. The press seems to have made quite a meal of the choice of publication. I think for anyone on the panel, this all seems a bit over the top because it didn’t have that significance.

Stringer: are you saying that Jones chose the papers themselves that were to be investigated, and that wasn’t the panel or the RS?

Oxburgh: There was no suggestion that Professor Jones chose them.

Stringer: Then where did the list come from?

Oxburgh: I believe they came um from the … well  I suspect that one of the people involved was Professor Liss who was the acting head of the unit I think, who had been brought in from outside the unit to look after it, but he is a chemical oceanographer who is broadly interested in this area and I think he, in consultation with people in the Royal Society, and maybe others outside the unit who had some familiarity with the [area?].

Stringer: So the list did not come from the Unit, you’re absolutely categoric on that?

Oxburgh: [Stuttering and hesitating] I have … Well I can’t prove a negative [giggling] as you know, [inaudible] we have absolutely no indication that it did.

Stringer: Some of the publicity says that it came from the RS, but the panel were given the list before the Royal Society were asked, weren’t they?

Oxburgh: I … [long pause] … Not as far as I know. I mean you might be right, but I don’t believe so. No, certainly, I don’t think that can be true.

Stringer: … [long pause] Right!

(My emphasis)

For a moment it seemed that Graham Stringer, who would fully understand the significance of what Oxburgh had said even if his fellow committee members did not, seemed to have been rendered speechless. For the last few months, news media and blogs all over the world have been reporting that the science at CRU has been investigated on the basis of a list of papers recommended by the Royal Society, and that no serious fault has been found with this work. In effect, the CRU has had its reputation restored on the basis of the Oxburgh Report. Now it is apparent that no review of the scientific research at CRU has taken place. And as some sceptics have long suspected, the chairman of the review panel blithely accepted a list of papers to examine in accordance with his very limited remit to consider  the integrity and honesty of the scientists. He did not even have the curiosity to find out  how the list had been chosen or by whom. Worse, there seems to be a direct conflict of evidence between Stringer’s version of events and that presented by Oxburgh. No wonder Stringer was shocked.

When Stringer eventually gathered his wits again, he said that there were a couple of things that Oxburgh had said which he found surprising. This was the other one:

Stringer: You also talk about the integrity [of the CRU scientists]. One of the accusations made in the evidence to the predecessor [Science and Technology Select] Committee of this, was made by [Doug] Keenan who accused …

Oxburgh: [interrupting, as though he was unfamiliar with the name] Made by?

Stringer: Keenan!

Oxburgh: Keenan, yes.

Stringer: … who accused Professor Jones of fraud …

Oxburgh: [interrupting again, sounding bored and dismissive] Yes

Stringer: …  if you were trying to find out whether there was fraud going on or whether the scientists had integrity, did you look at Keenan’s accusations?

Oxburgh: … [Pause] I don’t recall doing so  if I did

Stringer: [obviously taken aback] … Right!

So not only is Oxburgh blissfully unaware of who selected the research papers that he has founded his review on, but he is also admitting that while considering the integrity of the authors he has failed to take into account a long, detailed, referenced and widely publicised accusation of scientific fraud against one of them.

It is hardly surprising that Graham Stringer was shocked.

When I listened to the proceedings live yesterday morning, it all seemed fairly pedestrian, partly perhaps because when the committee chairman introduced Lord Oxburgh he had mentioned that he was in poor health. Perhaps also because nearly all the members of the committee other than Graham Stringer and the chairman are newly elected MPs who will still be finding their feet. In any case, no one seemed inclined to really hammer points home, and it would have been difficult to do so without accusing an elderly and sick man of total incompetence at the very least.

There were other questions that the committee raised: selection of the review panel (Oxburgh claimed that one of them was an ‘active climate sceptic’), whether Jones told the panel that it is impossible to reconstruct temperatures over the last thousand years (a somewhat hesitant and equivocal answer), why Oxburgh had chosen not to publish any of the panel’s working documents, with Stringer quoting Professor Kelly’s damning notes about the standard of some of Keith Briffa’s research (Oxburgh’s response was to defend Briffa),  how integrity was to be defined, if that was the purpose of the review (Oxburgh seemed not to have given this much thought), how the panel’s terms of reference had been decided (it all seems to have been rather vague and informal), whether the scientists were able to produce raw data to back up their finding when asked by the panel to do so (not in some cases), and whether the review was really independent (by the time Oxburgh tried to explain that it was, he had already said in a reply to another question that he had taken on the job to ‘help’ the university).

It would seem inevitable now, that after the committee questions Sir Muir Russell next month, they will also recall the Vice Chancellor (Professor Edwad Acton) of the University of East Anglia and the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Professor Trevor Davis). They are the people who commissioned the inquiries, and now suspicions about the shortcomings or at least one of them are turning into facts.

Much of what came out at Wednesday’s session of the Science and Technology Select Committee has been talked about in the blogosphere for months. It matters that these are the sole preserve of the emerging media no longer, but in the public domain as evidence to a House of Commons committee.

Harmless Sky, 9 September 2010