Russell Review Calls for More Openness in Climate Science

Daniel is a deputy news editor for Science.

Although today's Russell report was mostly positive in its dismissal of allegations against climate scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA), it did assert repeatedly that scientists there needed to show more "openness." Scientists in the university's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) were last year inundated with requests for data under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The authors of the report (pdf) found that "there was unhelpfulness in responding to requests and evidence that e-mails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them." The authors said that UEA management should have identified this problem in their risk management to prevent damage to the university's reputation.

Speaking to the press after the release of the report, Muir Russell, panel chair and a former university vice chancellor, said that "there needs to be new ways of making results and data available. ... There needs to be ways of handling criticism and challenge, of responding to a range of different sorts of criticism and getting into a more productive relationship with critics than we have sometimes seen in this case." He went on to say: "We identify the need for some sort of 'public space' where these issues can be aired in an atmosphere that is at the same time unthreatening and properly challenging."

Panel member James Norton, a government adviser on IT security, said: "Now more than ever, science needs to be open. Scientists don't own their data and have at most a temporary lease on it." Russell said that CRU did feel under siege from FOIA requests. "They felt that the same sorts of criticisms and challenges kept coming back and there was a feeling that they had done all they could do."

Russell acknowledged that there are lessons here for all universities conducting controversial but important research. Every university has "jewels in the crown" like CRU, he said, but "you'd better make sure they're properly resourced." In the case of CRU, Russell's report said that UEA's senior management should have accepted more responsibility for implementing the required processes for FOIA ... compliance.

Earlier reports into UEA's e-mail issue also highlighted the problem of openness. A report from the U.K. Parliament's Science and Technology Committee noted in March "a culture of non-disclosure at CRU and instances where information may have been deleted, to avoid disclosure." And an inquiry into CRU's science backed by UEA said in April, "A host of important unresolved questions also arises from the application of Freedom of Information legislation in an academic context."

Other researchers echo the report's call for greater openness. Chris Huntingford of Britain's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, says in a prepared statement:

Although the basic science of climate change can be trusted, it must be totally transparent, stating what we know for certain, and be very clear indeed where uncertainties remain. The methods used to make predictions of future change will have to withstand extreme levels of scrutiny, whether that is from colleagues, policymakers or the general public. So whilst the process following on from the CRU email leak has been painful, there is absolutely clear that this new level of accountability should be very much welcomed.

Some will no doubt complain that it takes up too much time. But my betting is that once it becomes a habit, the time overhead will be less than expected. When under pressure to reply to Freedom-of-Information requests, that additional built-in transparency means we can forward all such documentation. So ultimately enhanced openness could actually save time and comes with the added benefit of retaining trust in the science of climate change.

The last twenty years has seen a shift, from research in to the global environment being an intellectual curiosity to one of utmost importance. For those working in the field, this is both rewarding but it also brings new responsibilities. I'm quietly confident the research community will rise to this challenge, being kept "on our toes" by the ever increasing levels of examination.

Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the U.K.'s Met Office, says:

Climate change has huge implications societal and economically, so it is right that the science is subject to the closest scrutiny and we fully support the need for greater openness and clarity. We are already taking action by making data and codes available, and we have led an international proposal for a new global daily land surface temperature dataset, which has the backing of the World Meteorological Organization and has open access as its key element.

Posted in Climate