April 14, 2010
Well it had to be said, didn’t it? The University of East Anglia (home of the famous Climategate email scandal) commissioned an independent expert, Lord Oxburgh, to look into the behaviour of its scientists at its Climatic Research Unit. Never mind that Lord Oxburgh is the head of a carbon capture association and chairman of a wind energy firm, the university planned to use the study to wiggle out of any accusation of improper activities, exonerate themselves and get back to the business of climate research funding. Did I really have to wait until the report was uncritically acclaimed to write this blog? It was a political fix to a political crisis caused by scientists getting caught up in giving political advice on climate change. What a farce this whole thing has become.
The main problem with Climategate is that scientists have been implicated in a very inefficient UN policy process and have dedicated their time not to research and discovery, but the rather political process of consensus-making. Consensus-making is not science and researchers who recognised the problem had their views excluded, branded as sceptics, contrarians and whores of industry (this behaviour does not express the values of scientific exploration and free, open exchange of ideas).
Consensus building is a political process and scientists should not be involved. Point. In other fields like chemicals and food safety, scientists are involved in the risk assessment process, but not the risk management decisions. After BSE, their role was well defined, in part to ensure that the reputation of scientific advice would not deteriorate any further. This was well articulated in the UK House of Lords Science in Society report and the European Commission’s White Paper on Governance. But on climate, it was the scientists who decided that their information was too important to be left in the hands of the policymakers, and with the urging of the NGOs (who were doing their own research, eg, on the Himalayan glacier melt rate!) took the matter into their own hands. It does not come to me as a surprise then that the scientists have been dragged through the mud on this one (if you want to get in and wrestle with the pigs, prepare to get yourself muddy!).
The question remains though: What damage has been done to science? I fear that the strength of evidence-based decision-making has been badly wounded here. Debates have already bifurcated into “our scientists versus their scientists” so the idea of objective advice (the need for belief that there is such a thing) has become rather limp. Climate scientists will no longer be trusted as supreme taps of information. The only remarkable conclusion of the Oxburgh Wiggle Report is that the climate scientists did not seek other expert advice, eg, from statisticians. This is unbelievable. It shows that the CRU researchers had so much hubris not only to think they knew better than policy-makers, but also could not be bothered to ask other scientists for help. This is definitely not science being done at University of East Anglia – that spirit is long gone.
What must be done then? Another wiggle-wash is pointless. In a forthcoming blog, I plan to list eight reasons why the IPCC’s Pachauri must be fired and why the IPCC itself has become a lame duck. I think reputation will not be rebuilt by more self-funded reports and researchers applauding and exonerating themselves. Administrators at the University of East Anglia should go quietly into a room and examine how far they have strayed from doing actual research. Perhaps a bit of political quiet and more time doing credible research would be a good idea.David Zaruk