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UK Information Commissioner Forces University To Release Research Data

Scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast have been ordered to hand over 40 years of research data on tree rings after a three-year battle with climate sceptics.

The ruling by the Information Commissioner sets a precedent for scientists having to comply with the strictest interpretation of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

It suggests that in future academics will not be able to avoid handing over data by claiming that the task would be too onerous or that it would breach intellectual property rights.

Douglas Keenan, an independent researcher from London, who is a well-known climate sceptic, first requested the data in 2007. Queen’s refused his request, saying that it was too expensive.

Now the commissioner has ruled that the university will be in contempt of FoI laws if it refuses to address the request.

The commissioned also identified a number of “procedural breaches” in the handling of Mr Keenan’s request.

“This has taken three years, but it is worth it,” Mr Keenan told the journal Nature.

“It is an important victory for FoI on research data. Also, for global warming studies, the data is extremely valuable for reconstructing temperatures over past millennia.”

The university has until April 26 to appeal against the decision and is currently considering its position.

However, the lead scientist involved, Michael Bailee, said that the oak ring data requested was not relevant to temperature reconstruction records.

Although ancient oaks could give an indication of one-off dramatic climatic events, such as droughts, they were not useful as a temperature proxy because they were highly sensitive to water availability as well as past temperatures, he added.

“It’s been dressed up as though we are suppressing climate data, but we have never produced climate records from our tree rings,” Professor Bailee said.

“In my view it would be dangerous to try and make interpretations about the temperature from this data.”

The data requested includes oak ring records taken from ancient timbers, archaeological excavations and from sub-fossil oaks dating back to 5000BC found in peat bogs.

The university said that much of the data was in paper form, or on floppy disks and would take too long to transfer to a digital version.

Dr Rob Wilson, who runs the University of St Andrews tree ring laboratory, agreed that oaks were virtually useless as a temperature proxy, but said that scientists must now be vigilant about making data available.

“If Douglas Keenan wants to try to reconstruct the temperature from this, good luck to him,” he said.

Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat MP and chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee, said that scientists now needed to work on the presumption that if research is publicly funded, the data ought to be made publicly available.

“Following the Climategate furore at the University of East Anglia the message came out loud and clear from the select committee report and from Lord Oxburgh’s report that data has to be made publicly available in order that there is no question of anyone hiding anything,” he said.

“Any university or scientist that hasn’t got that message needs a total rethink of the way they do research. Every time they don’t do it, they give ammunition to climate deniers and sceptics.”

Benny Peiser, of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, said: “It is regrettable that it has come to FoI requests. It’s almost as though Climategate never happened.”

The Times, 20 April 2010

see also Fred Pearce: Climate sceptic wins landmark data victory ‘for price of a stamp’