Bits and pieces from the UK Parliament ‘climategate’ hearing

Phil Jones, head of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, admitted he had “obviously written some very awful e-mails” at Monday’s parliamentary hearing into the stolen emails affair.

It’s a striking quote. But what else happened at the Science and Technology Committee hearing?

Firstly, the hearing was not on the merits of climate science itself, although Lord Nigel Lawson, a former UK chancellor who has written a book sceptical of climate change, was one of those on the committee putting questions to scientists and other officials. The terms of reference concern the implications for scientific integrity, the scope of the UEA’s own inquiry, and the independence of the other two key international climate data sets, Nasa and NOAA.

But for those interested in the questions of what it might mean for the scientific process, and particularly disclosure requirements on publicly-funded research in the UK, there were a few interesting tidbits.

[NB: The hearing doesn't appear to be archived for viewing on parliament.tv and this writer was unable to view it at the time, so we'll have to go with reports from those who did.]

Damian Carrington at the Guardian liveblogged the affair; an approach that doesn’t always work but in this case is worth a read; the links to specific emails provide a little guide to some of the most-publicised topics.

One potentially interesting witness was Richard Thomas, who was Information Commissioner at the time, overseeing the operation of FOI in the UK, had a few things to say; witholding data that belongs to others is legitimate; but said he “had no idea” over whether the UEA handled the data sufficienty; but that the fact some data belonged to other institutions could indeed be a legitimate reason to withhold it (more on this below). He also said he did not think the number of FOI requests being made to UEA was extraordinarily high; however the sharp increase in queries in one year was ‘significant’.

However:

But the simplest apporach is pro-active disclosure in the first place.

He says the emails suggesting people should delete material is prima facie reason that would have required investigation.

Another witness, the UK’s chief government scientist John Beddington, also commented that large numbers of requests should be addressed by the institution receiving the requests.

He also appeared to agree that computer programmes used in public research should probably be made public, but pointed out that making data public could be demoralising for scientists involved – although he suggests that could be addressed by delaying the release.

Carrington seemed frequently frustrated with both the questions and the answers (particularly Thomas’), and concluded:

The key witness, Phil Jones, came through almost unscathed, in my opinion. But the questioning was feeble and pretty uninformed and far from persistent. So we didn’t learn much, if anything. Not a very inquisitorial inquiry.

We’ll need more from Muir Russell’s inquiry for UEA, and he said little to excite, though he gave off a reassuringly bland air – safe pair of hands and all that.

One of the aspects of the hearing not covered in much detail in the Guardian’s live blog is whether the fact that some of the data used by CRU was owned by other countries – many of whom had refused or failed to give permission to have it released – was a legitimate reason to reject some FOI requests. My colleague Fiona Harvey has more on this in today’s FT:

The former Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, was also questioned, and told the committee that it was permissible to withhold data in response to FOI requests if it was owned by another party.

He said that making a judgment on the case would have required an investigation, which his office was unable to undertake because under current law any such inquiry would have had to take place within six months of the alleged offence.

If you want a little more colour, the Telegraph’s sketch writer Anne Treneman has them: Nigel Lawson is ‘hurricane Nigel’; Phil Jones was ” like a dead calm sea, almost glassy”, while UEA vice-chancellor Edward Acton was “excitable”.

So far there is little response from the big sceptical blogs, such as ClimateAudit and Roger Pielke Snr haven’t commented on the hearing – nor is there anything on RealClimate, set up as an opposing force to sceptics. It will be interesting to see whether Monday’s hearing causes much of a stir in the online climate science debate battle war.

Related links:

CRU explains ‘trick’ and ‘hide the decline’ (FT Energy Source)
Wiki-fied climate science and other ideas for the IPCC (FT Energy Source)
The real problems with climate science (FT Energy Source)

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