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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Phil Jones breaks silence on stolen CRU e-mails

Climategate scientist breaks his silence

by Catherine Brahic, NewScientist, July 28, 2010

With inquiries into the affair now complete, Phil Jones reflects on his bruising experiences at the centre of the storm

Jones became a marked man (Image: Chris Bourchier/Rex Features)
Jones became a marked man (Image: Chris Bourchier/Rex Features)

UNTIL late November 2009, Phil Jones was just another successful scientist -- director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, UK, and respected by his peers, but hardly a public figure. That changed abruptly when a selection of emails spanning more than a decade were hacked from the CRU and placed on a public server.

The Copenhagen climate negotiations were two weeks away. Within days, the emails were being scrutinised by millions, via the blogosphere and media. Those from Jones were among the most controversial. Some climate sceptics portrayed him as a fraud, conspiring with colleagues to manipulate data and distort peer review in order to perpetuate the global "conspiracy" of human-induced climate change.

The strain of these events is clear when Jones walks into the office UEA provided for our interview, and his gaze is averted as he folds his frame into the corner of an armchair. It has been two weeks since the last independent inquiry into "climategate", headed by former UK civil servant Muir Russell, was published. Jones has agreed to break a silence of five months as the CRU prepares to put its data and software online (see "Climategate data sets to be made public"). With him is Trevor Davies, the university's pro-vice-chancellor of research and himself a former director of the CRU.

Phil, how did the controversy affect you personally?

PJ It was just a shock initially. It took a while to get over and it's difficult to come back and get back into the swing of things. I know things aren't going to be the same as they were pre-November. It's just about learning to live with it.

Climategate has highlighted conflicts between climate scientists and some of their critics. Is there a value in having critical voices contribute to scientific discussions?

PJ Yes, provided they do it through the normal processes, which is through peer review. I say that not because there's no value in the blog sites, but because it's necessary. Unless the alternative views are in the peer-reviewed literature, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cannot refer to them.

TD Clearly we need to engage with those who have genuine questions, but I'm not sure what the mechanism is. It is difficult to engage with people who criticise the science yet don't come back with a scientific analysis. It's striking that some of the criticism of the Russell review was around the panel membership and who spoke to whom when, rather than addressing the CRU's scientific answers to the inquiry.

PJ As climate scientists, we are critical amongst ourselves. You can see that in the emails. Discussions at conferences are no different from the discussions in the emails.

But do similar discussions happen with people who don't hold the same world view as yourself?

PJ I don't hold a world view -- that's ridiculous. I have no interest in policy at all. I'm interested in the science, not the policy. I get these emails saying I'm trying to change the world government -- it's just ridiculous. People assume that I'm advocating that society should be doing certain things. I'm not. We try to be totally apolitical in the CRU.

People assume that I'm advocating that society should be doing certain things. I'm not.
Do you feel that climate science and policy should be separate?

PJ I think there should be some separation. What we say about the science should be treated separately from what's happening with the policy. There should be an acceptance that the climate has warmed since measurements began. OK, there's then debate about what caused that warming. But I do find it difficult engaging with people who deny the evidence and say the world has not warmed.

Has climategate changed your opinion of how to cope with critics?

TD It's made us realise that if we have nothing to hide then we need not give the impression that we are hiding things. In some instances we should have been more helpful, we accept that.

PJ Science -- not just climate science -- needs to engage, but we've got to find a way to do so productively. I think the slanging has got to stop.

Some of your critics say the emails revealed distortions of peer review. In one, for instance, you wrote about keeping papers out of the IPCC report "even if we have to redefine peer review literature."

PJ Muir Russell showed that to be wrong. He found there was no perversion of the peer-review process. The papers that we were referring to in that email were bad science. One was involved in a long saga in which half the editorial board of the journal that published it resigned.

This relates to another issue I've always had difficulty with. I think there are too many journals - and more are coming in climate. So if our critics use the excuse that they can't get papers in scientific journals... well, there are enough journals around. Getting work published is not a problem.

Some of the emails refer to repeated freedom of information requests for the CRU's data. Do you think there should be limits to FOI when it comes to science?

PJ I think some information should be exempt from FOI requests. If I do a review for a journal I don't think I should have to release my review. And I think we should be given some time to develop a dataset before releasing it.

TD We regard emails as ordinary conversations, and some of those we regard as personal and confidential. The FOI act is clearly laudable. But we also believe there is an argument for confidentiality. The trouble is, that is interpreted by some as being somehow sinister, when it clearly is not in the vast majority of cases.

US law accepts that emails between colleagues when they're working on a paper and around peer review should not be disclosable. That came about because of what was described as a potentially chilling effect on research if every single email exchange was released.

Phil, did you delete any emails out of concern that they might be the subject of FOI requests?

PJ I haven't deleted any emails that were the subject of FOI requests, but I have deleted emails because I just have too many to cope with. I'm deleting 50 every day at the moment. It would be very difficult to guess what might be asked for in the future so I don't go around deleting emails just because they might be asked for at some point.

Do you have any regrets?

TD It is regrettable that intemperate language was used in some of the emails. They acted as a lightning rod for the storm which many commentators said was brewing. The resultant shock felt at UEA, and by Phil in particular, will certainly change the way we work. All at UEA now recognise that we should treat all requests for information equally, and not to try to distinguish between well-intentioned requests and those which appear spurious or mischievous.

With the inquiries over, what's next?

PJ I haven't been back to a scientific meeting since early November, but I've got one scheduled later this year. I'm looking forward to going to it.

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