Former head of research unit responds to criticism by arguing for necessity of assessing excerpts by independent reviews
The former head of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, which was at the centre of a media and scientific storm over leaked emails, said their response to the incident was delayed by “shock” at the leak and at the content of the communications, a Guardian debate heard last night.
Professor Trevor Davies, the UEA’s pro-vice chancellor of research, spoke out after climate scientists and sceptics clashed last week over the findings of a six-month inquiry into the emails dating back 13 years.
“We were shocked too by the excerpts from the original emails and that was one reason why we were accused of slowing our response. We had to verify they were real. We decided to assess them, not by a small number of emails, but by independent reviews,” Davies said.
The university was criticised by climate sceptics and commentators last year including the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who accused it of reacting slowly to the publication of the emails in November and the ensuing media storm.
The pro vice-chancellor struck a conciliatory note at the heated debate, as panellists argued over whether the inquiry drew a line under the affair or was a “whitewash”, as one critic said.
Davies said: “There are lessons to be learned. We need to be much more aware of interactions between the mainstream media and the blogosphere and contribute to public debates.”
He said the university had a series of initiatives planned for later this year to such effect.
Responding to criticisms in the findings of last week’s Muir Russell report, which called the university and its Climatic Research Unit’s (CRU) responses to freedom of information requests “unhelpful and defensive”, he said: “We have to be more helpful to freedom of information and environmental regulation requests.” He defended two reviews commissioned by UEA as “wholly independent”, and reiterated the conclusions of the total of three reviews into the affair, all of which cleared scientists of wrongdoing and manipulating data, and said the science was sound.
But prominent climate sceptic bloggers Stephen McIntyre and Douglas Keenan criticised the CRU and UEA. “Both the Muir Russell review and Oxburgh review [an earlier review of the emails] are clearly whitewash. That is not the problem. The real problem is the lack of systematic accountability, whereby allegations of improper behaviour are dealt with,” said Keenan.
He also claimed that university researchers were switching from using their university to using Gmail addresses, to avoid being covered by freedom of information requests. Bob Watson, chief scientist at Defra, said he had not personally heard of any scientists switching to such email addresses.
Under questioning from McIntyre, Davies confirmed Sir Muir Russell, the chair of the six-month inquiry published last week, had not met Phil Jones, the current head of the CRU, in person after his inquiry’s panel was appointed in February. Evidence from Jones was instead taken by other officials.
Watson, a former head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said the system for advising governments on how to act on climate change should accomodate sceptical opinions. “I think the IPCC is probably the best system you could invent… but sceptical views must be in the document.”
He also said the IPCC had failed to admit mistakes quickly over an error in its last major report about the rate of glacier melting in the Himalayas. But he added the UN panel was “very strong” and would be strengthened by a review into its work due to be published in September by the InterAcademy Council. Watson was damning about media coverage of the emails affair. “The printed press said UEA was guilty without examination. One had the feeling people were guilty without an in-depth analysis.” Davies said Jones, who admitted earlier this year he had considered suicide because of the pressure on him, had been “hounded by the press”. The panel included science journalist Fred Pearce, Davies, Defra chief scientific adviser Bob Watson and climate sceptic bloggers Doug Keenan and Stephen McIntyre. It was chaired by Monbiot.
Last week the third and final UK report into the emails affair, the Muir Russell review, cleared the CRU of manipulating data. Announcing the findings, Muir Russell said: “Ultimately this has to be about what they did, not what they said. The honesty and rigour of CRU as scientists are not in doubt.”
Jones, the former head of CRU and scientist at the centre of many of the emails, was appointed last week to the newly-created post of director of research at CRU.
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