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« Huhne file goes to CPS | Main | War of words »

Climate scientists want no oversight

Revkin reports on the involvement of an organisation called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in a legal defence fund for climate scientists. I was interested in this bit about the application of FOI to universities:

Q: Finally, when the issue is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), there’s a murky line between what is fishing and what isn’t. Many FOIA requests of green groups over the years could be cast as such. This is one reason the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, has walked a fine line in its statements on abuse of FOIA. Should a researcher using a state university e-mail address and working under federal grants be entitled to presume his/her correspondence is “private” (as described below)?
A: The central issue is whether the subject of the inquiry is public business. Generally, scientific articles submitted in the author’s name with a disclaimer that the work does not represent the institution falls outside what is official business. Our main concern is that industry-funded groups and law firms are seeking to criminalize the peer review process by obtaining internal editorial comments of reviewers as a means to impeach or impugn scientists.

The grants themselves and the grant reports are public but a federal grant does not transform a university lab into an executive branch agency – which is the ambit of FOIA.

By the way, as an adjunct to our whistleblower practice, PEER makes extensive use of FOIA to force disclosure of matters other wise buried in agency cubicles. A good example of one our science-based FOIA [requesets] is this.

"...seeking to criminalize the peer review process by obtaining internal editorial comments of reviewers as a means to impeach or impugn scientists"? Huh?

It can't be said often enough. If you want public money you have to accept public oversight.

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Reader Comments (43)

I think this could be bad news for science and free speech.

Scott Mandia, who set up the Climate Science Defense Fund is a green hysteric of the highest order:-

PEER is a heavily funded green activist outfit, with tentacles throughout the US public service, which litigates at the drop of a hat.

I suspect "Climate Science Defense" might turn out to be a euphemism for "Climate Science Attacks on Those Who Oppose the True Word" - like Tim Ball.

Also I'm not sure Revkin should worry too much what the Union of Concerned Scientists think - now we know Anthony Watts' little doggie is a fully accredited member:-

Jan 25, 2012 at 1:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterFoxgoose

Capcha is driving me mad again.

Is it part of a subtle plot by teenage warmist IT geeks to get elderly white males off the internet?

Jan 25, 2012 at 1:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterFoxgoose

It always strikes me as odd that climate scientists feel that they are so special and precious that they must have their own legislative protection.

Or should we let medical researchers and pharmacological researchers have similar privacy and lack of independent oversight?

Jan 25, 2012 at 1:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

Re; Rick Bradford

Pah! Medical and pharmacological researchers only save a few. Climate "scientists" are saving the world, they are superheroes. When you wear your underpants over your trousers you cannot be expected to answer questions from mere mortals. Don't you know that, when you are saving the world from climate catastrophe, seconds count.

Jan 25, 2012 at 1:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

The argument about the free exercise of academic discourse and the suggested chilling effect on this of complete transparency is a valid one. Finding the right balance is a very difficult task. I don’t subscribe to the view that just because public funding is given that everything ever written should be open to public scrutiny. I don’t consider that to be a realistic or suitably nuanced view of these difficult issues in science and academia generally.

In respect of climate science particularly, in my opinion none of the backbiting, slurs, and impoliteness displayed by Climategate emails matters on its own. It wouldn’t matter if we had not seen it. Even expressions of uncertainty perhaps don’t always per se have to be subject to public scrutiny. Not all expressions of uncertainty provide those of a different view an “Ah Ha” moment – often they will be part of discussions that one would expect and part of the route to an agreed expression of what is known and to what level of confidence. All quite expected amongst scientists.

I also accept that the argument can be made that climate science is unique in that as a result of the enormous policy consequences based on it the public interest in disclosure is of the highest order.

What does matter just as much today is that having this discussion now is to a very large extent coloured by what we now know. The small “Team” as a part of the climate science community (and the apparent lack of much criticism of it in climate science circles since Climategate 1 and 2) has probably already lost the argument for climate science. So unacceptable is the conduct relating to FOI/EIR, and the rampant advocacy and activism displayed by those emails, that society at large will probably not now countenance anything but complete disclosure.

But this is probably the right reaction for climate science. Other disciplines might rightly obtain some level of protection from FOI/EIR. Climate science, in short, no longer deserves it.

Jan 25, 2012 at 2:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterRB

The important bit about FOI is that it applies NO MATTER WHAT THE INTENTIONS OF THE REQUESTER ARE.

Intention-dependent FOI is not freedom, rather a gracious (and always temporary) concession on the part of the State. It's like trying to define as democratic a Parliament you can vote for only if invited to the electoral polls.

Jan 25, 2012 at 2:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

"...industry-funded groups and law firms are seeking to criminalize the peer review process..."

Exactly to which "industry-funded groups" do they refer? I believe most of the FOIA requests have come from concerned private citizens such as Steve McIntyre and David Holland. And far from "seeking to criminalize the peer review process," they have been seeking scientific information that has been developed at public cost.

Any "criminalization" is more likely to emerge from leakage of CRU emails which show public-funded scientists colluding to evade FOI laws.

Jan 25, 2012 at 2:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Maloney

"Protecting Scientists and Scientific Integrity"

Public agency scientists, particularly at the federal level, are under growing political pressure to alter, dilute or suppress their findings on issues of economic impact or controversy. When scientists find themselves in the political crosshairs, with their careers threatened, they call PEER.

In cases spanning the country and crossing disciplines from botany to economics, PEER—

• Provides legal defense to scientists targeted because their work is politically inconvenient.

• Exposes scientific fraud and manipulation by political managers. PEER seeks to hold the science manipulators accountable; and

• Pioneers new legal paths to debunk political science substituting for real science.

That applies both ways. How does PEER protect public agency scientists and officials who dissent on CAGW?

Jan 25, 2012 at 2:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterMac

Socialists (and I'm being presumptuous here assuming they are) don't tend to think of state money as coming from "the public". It comes from "the government"!

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobinson

For someone who purports to be paying attention to this stuff, your "huh?" is funny. Try googling Charles Monnet and read the transcripts of his interviews with the OIG at the Dept. of the Interior. What you have there is an anonymous complaint about a high profile paper (which has never been made public), a criminal investigation into the peer review of the paper by someone who is completely incompetent which turns into a fishing expedition for some technical non-compliance with a regulation - itself also unsupported. All in complete violation of standards for investigating scientific complaints set by by the bureau itself.

Taking public money does not mean people must be made subjects of public witchhunts.

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrank

Are we to understand that 'criminalization' has been redefined as the discovery of acts of criminality (including, for the sake of argument, fraud and conspiracy to defraud)?

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers

There is not a single scientist anywhere innthe world who supports tha CAGW story who does not take "public money". It has been demonstrated time after time that no such independent scientists support alarmism.

(There have been 3 individuals who have personally claimed to be such independent supporters of alarmism but 2 have proven to have been lying and the 3rd refuses to identify who pays him, though nobody in the alarmist commuity has word to say against such lying which indicates the normal level of honesty to be found among alarmists)

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterNeil Craig

Frank, are you suggesting that peer review by people who are completely incompetent should be a crimninal offence?

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers

Crimninal? Doh.

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers

So, is this an admission of criminal behaviour? How could someone 'criminalize' something that was not already illegal? Are they not flat out saying that FOI requests will expose evidence of criminal behaviour, and that is unacceptable because they are above the law? How on earth is it relevant whether they are government funded and working in state institutions or not as regards criminal behaviour? I'm at a complete loss as to what they are trying to achieve with such a daft statement.

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:27 PM | Unregistered Commenternano pope

Let's take a long look at what's going on here. Nobody asked to see emails, with the exception, I believe, of Doug Holland who asked to seeJ ohn Mitchell's emails as part of his IPCC work. And as the IPCC was a self-proclaimed transparent organisation there should be no problem there. The rest of the FOIAs, and there were precious few of them up until 2009 (6 from January 2005 until December 2008), were requests to see data that had been used in peer reviewed published papers and which these shysters refused to give to anybody other than their own "team". I believe that without exception when the data (but never the software) was dragged out of them the "science" was at best dodgy.

This is all part of the ongoing meme of the brave scientists battling the forces of evil. Anything they say will be taken at face value if it absolves them from public approbrium. Like Mike's "trick" we were told that it was common for scientists to use the word "trick" to describe a methodology.

You would expect then that the word would be plastered all over 6000 emails between scientists who use this word commonly to describe a method. It occurs in just 22 emails out of the 6000.

This explanation was swallowed hook line and sinker by the MSM and the scientific establishment. these people aren't just to make fools of the public,they're emphasising the folly and gullibility that exists at the top of the scientific establishment.

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:38 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

It is of interest that the word "data" seems not to appear in any of the text or comments. Data is what should be freely available on request if the research generating the data is publicly funded. Data generated by commercial or private researchers is a different issue.
It was refusal to provide data on request that was the most egregious breech of the ethics of science as revealed by Climategate.

Jan 25, 2012 at 3:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterMorley Sutter

Re: geronimo

> with the exception, I believe, of Doug Holland who asked to seeJ ohn Mitchell's emails as part of his IPCC work.

Doug Holland was, I believe, only asking for what should have already been provided. The IPCC guidance document states (or used to state):

All written expert, and government review comments will be made available to reviewers on request during the review process and will be retained in an open archive in a location determined by the IPCC Secretariat on completion of the Report for a period of at least five years.
Based on this, John Mitchell's emails should have already been released at the time of the Doug Holland's request.

Jan 25, 2012 at 4:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

Are you sure that FOI really addresses your core concern? It seems to me that it is not state funding which is really decisive for skeptics in demanding transparency.

Let me give you an analogy. When President Bush announced that no federal funding would go toward new stem cell research a number of efforts were set up to do stem cell research with private money. They were in universities that received federal money so that had to be careful. For example, new electricity meters had to be installed to ensure that freezers used to store materials used in the research were not running off electricity paid through federal money.

Suppose that a similar effort was put up in climate science, and the research was funded by greenpeace or the wind energy industry or Bill Gates or anyone else. Suppose that the researchers who were funded were widely respected by the scientific and political establishment and were influential with the IPCC, yet they were immune to FOI requests.

Skeptics who complain about failure of responsiveness to FOI might be happy that researchers had then met their legal obligation. But surely they might still have substantive complaints about openness. It seems to me that while the debate about state funding and FOI is of interest and importance for some purposes it does not really hit the main point, which is: what does it take to ensure that more trust can be put in the results of climate science?

Jan 25, 2012 at 4:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterJK

I am not happy with the idea that a scientist can have no privacy at his place of work. The idea that anything from an institutional email address or even sent from a work computer is open to FOI is draconian.
Your Grace takes the view that "It can't be said often enough. If you want public money you have to accept public oversight." Does that mean that all activity in the workplace is "public" and hence recordable and reportable? I don't think you mean that!
Regrettably FOI had to be invoked because scientists broke the rules about making data available when asked for. This rule was unwritten when I started out but appears explicitly in the research ethics statements of most journals and institutions these days.
The sanction for not providing data should be the inability to publish again in that journal and for recidivists eventual dismissal. None of this should need FOI in the blanket form suggested by Your Grace and so maintains privacy in the workplace.

Jan 25, 2012 at 4:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterSkeptical Chymist

@Skeptical Chymist

These charlatans have poisoned the well of honest scientists in more ways than this. The public perception of our entire profession has been degraded to a level indistinguishable from political hack/NGO-funded shyster.

Mann-made ignominy.

Jan 25, 2012 at 4:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers

I am not happy with the idea that a scientist can have no privacy at his place of work

That should already be the condition for millions of people working in the Financial Sector and rightly so. None of whom has seen their life ruined by such a rule.

And if anybody is looking for "privacy", a State job is not the place, and cannot be. Unless it's MI6...

Jan 25, 2012 at 4:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

To the extent that emails are private they are exempt from FOI.

Jan 25, 2012 at 4:58 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Thread going good till now...

Jan 25, 2012 at 5:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterShub

Skeptical: 'I am not happy with the idea that a scientist can have no privacy at his place of work. The idea that anything from an institutional email address or even sent from a work computer is open to FOI is draconian.'

I'm afraid this is the case; whilst working as a scientist in the Civil Service and also being a trustee of a charitable trust, I was given legal advice not to use my work computer for trust-related emails as these would then be FOI-able. There is also the problem that using IT equipment or work-time paid for by public funding can be considered a mis-use of public funds. At my place of work, commenting on blogs was considered a breach of IT policy which could lead to dismissal.

Jan 25, 2012 at 5:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterSalopian

I'm only a clown, and I don't really know much, but a couple of weeks ago in the "Stocker's Earmarks" thread on ClimateAudit I remarked:

If they really must have freedom from disclosure perhaps they might consider switching to a field of study without the enormous societal costs – taxonomy comes to mind. But if they want to play with the big boys in an area where real money is involved then they should expect and even welcome scrutiny, criticism, and challenges. That is, after all, the hallmark of a free democratic society.

Apologies for my self-plagiarism, but this still seems pertinent.

Jan 25, 2012 at 5:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterCrusty the Clown


Better a public wtichhunt than one conducted in private. Go and look up 'Star Chamber'.

Jan 25, 2012 at 5:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterDreadnought


Jan 25, 2012 at 5:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterDreadnought

RB says:

"The argument about the free exercise of academic discourse and the suggested chilling effect on this of complete transparency is a valid one. Finding the right balance is a very difficult task."


I beg to differ. When I log onto my computer at work (in the private sector), I get a message every time that says there is no "right to privacy" expressed or implied. The computer, the e-mail system, the network and the internet connection are all supplied by my employer as a tool to be used for my job. I always assume anything I type or load on the computer can be observed by someone else. I do the same for any conversations I have on my work phone, as well.

This does have a "chilling effect". I (usually) consider what I type and send, knowing it can be passed along to others. I have thrown away more than one scathing draft e-mail because of this and have been glad I did so. I am also aware that my e-mails can be obtained by others in discovery if my company is sued. Why should Mann be exempt from careful consideration of what he writes in e-mails? Isn't he being paid to think? Weren't the suppliers of his e-mail resources and research monies the taxpayers of Virginia, like me?

We've already had a glimpse of what is in Mann's e-mails from the Climategate files. I feel there will be more of the same in the UVA files. No wonder he wants to suppress them.

Jan 25, 2012 at 6:29 PM | Unregistered Commenteroeman50


I totally agree with you. The trouble is that a large number of those working in the 'cloud-cuckooland' of 'academiaworld' think that they are totally exempt to the restrictions that those of us working in the civil/public/private sector have to work to when it comes to the use of publically/privately funded resources for other uses.

Jan 25, 2012 at 6:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterSalopian

Phil Jones responses to FOIs which (as we know from CG 1) per entirely premeditated and planned before The FOI act came into law, has caused the UEA immeasurable harm and made the university complicit . As a direct result, the UEA has lost any reputation which it might have had prior to Phil Jones adopting his stance on the issue.
Michael Mann has done exactly the same with and for hisuniversity.
Take thes two individuals out of the equation and we would probably not be discussing this issue.
The import of the actions of these team members is worthy of Rachel Carson.

Jan 25, 2012 at 7:57 PM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

Re: oeman50

In the private sector, not only does the company have my email and browsing history but anything I happen to create or invent using the companies resources belongs to them.

If I want to create something (whether a concept or a physical object) that the company has no rights to then I must do all the work on my own time and must not use any of the companies resources. This includes other employees, any laptop or desktop computer, any consumables (paper etc), phones or any other device provided by the company. It can also include knowledge, obtained from the company, that is not available elsewhere.

When I leave the companies employment I can not take any documents, code, contacts list, data or anything I might have worked on in the past. Irrespective of whether that is 6 months worth of work or 30 years worth.

If/when Phil Jones leaves UEA he will probably be able to take copies of all datasets he has worked on, all the academic papers including notebooks, research notes and any code used to manipulate the data. All of this he will consider his property.

Jan 25, 2012 at 10:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

The financial sector [MM] and even some government laboratories [Salopian] seem rather unpleasant places to work! If you want scientists who head for the door at 4.59pm and have no thought for their work until 9am the next day then these workplaces seem tailor made.
The young people I supervised in "academiaworld" stayed late, thought about their projects in their "spare" time, often dreaming about science before getting up and going into the lab at 1am because their experiment needed attention. I'm certain that it wouldn't have occurred to any of them to refuse to explain how they came by published results.
Academic scientists are paid well below their skill level in the UK. You get what you pay for and job satisfaction is the non-financial part of their reward. In my experience the more a private-sector or government laboratory resembled this "cloud-cuckooland" the more productive it was.

Jan 26, 2012 at 12:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterSkeptical Chymist

Great discussion, thanks to RB and Skep Chym for providing some decent food for thought against the flow.

Academic scientists are paid well below their skill level in the UK. You get what you pay for and job satisfaction is the non-financial part of their reward.

That's a very important point which I for one constantly bear in mind. But there's a lot to put right. The sympathy with which climate scientists are viewed by those from other disciplines within the Royal Society has an explanation - other than outright conspiracy I mean. I was conscious of this when I went toe to toe briefly with Paul Nurse last summer. He clearly did feel sympathy and he had his reasons. In this he's been deceived and he's been used, in my view. But people like Jones won't pick up the tab for all this ugliness, they'll be long gone. Not good.

Jan 26, 2012 at 12:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Skeptical Chymist - it appears you know more of the financial sector than I do. Please send across a list of places where people head for the door at 4.59pm 8-)

Jan 26, 2012 at 1:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

Michael Mann reminds me rather of the paranoid Batman villain King Tut, who is so sure of his own deity that he must always think his problems are of other people's making.

On one occasion, he (Tut) laments: "O miseracordia, my queen is disloyal, my hand-maiden's a traitor, and everyone's being mean to me."

They even look slightly similar:

Jan 26, 2012 at 1:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterRick Bradford

MM, you seem to have missed a key ingredient in what SC is saying. Let's put the question like this: how many people in the UK financial sector would head for the door by 4.59pm if they were paid what a UK academic scientist was? Without decent money as reward behaviour would surely change. What keeps people working in UK academic science has to be something different. Destroying the 'non-financial part of their reward' may not be a smart idea.

Jan 26, 2012 at 5:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Re: Richard Drake

You are mistaken. SC states (my bold)

The financial sector [MM] and even some government laboratories [Salopian] seem rather unpleasant places to work! If you want scientists who head for the door at 4.59pm and have no thought for their work until 9am the next day then these workplaces seem tailor made.
He is clearly talking about the workplace environment. The only things regarding the workplace that MM and Salopian talk about is the lack of expectation of privacy and misuse of company resources. My own personal experience is that if people like the job then they will work past 5:00pm to complete their tasks irrespective of their pay grade or they will work past 5:00pm because it is part of their job.

Jan 26, 2012 at 9:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

1. Nobody goes to work in a research department because of privacy concerns

2. When one joins a regulated industry, one has to accept the regulations. If those are considered unacceptable, one should (a) leave the industry or (b) push for the regulations to be changed. Even if (b), as long as the regulations are in place one will have to follow them.

So just as the financial sector and especially my current workplace can't keep the Authority out of the door and out of the emails, analogously the public sector can't keep themselves away from FOI eyes.

Scientists needing to work in perfect secrecy should leave the private sector, or get FOI changed. OTOH the law as it stands is so absolutely toothless, I am not sure what change to it away from more freedom wouldn't make it pointless.

Jan 26, 2012 at 10:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

should leave the PUBLIC sector, of course

Jan 26, 2012 at 10:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

First, thanks to Richard Drake for clarifying my point of view, and putting things better than I would have myself...

TerryS quite rightly says

"The only things regarding the workplace that MM and Salopian talk about is the lack of expectation of privacy and misuse of company resources."

If I use my work email to organise a seminar for another organisation (e.g. a learned society) or slip off to the library to read about something interesting outside my immediate project(s) then I expect you think I'm misusing my institution's resources. I don't (and I firmly believe that my efficiency and productivity, and thus my institutions reputation and in the long run science itself benefits.)
Anyway, that's what I'm going to tell the Research Probity Commissar when he produces the transcripts of the key-logging program he'd installed on my computer and shows the library surveillance videos.

Jan 26, 2012 at 2:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterSkeptical Chymist

It may well be that I erred in what I attributed to SC - until he said that I hadn't :)

Is this a baby and bathwater situation or just a bathwater one? We all agree about the existence of the bathwater in the climate area. I think we all agree that use of FOI is very second best as a way of throwing it out. The issue for me is whether there may be unintended consequences of 'getting tough' in other areas of science. I think we do well to listen on that as well as speak. (I listened for example not just to Paul Nurse at the Royal Society do in the summer but to Cameron Neylon on the additional bureacratic burdens he felt they were experiencing at Rutherford Appleton Labs. My sympathy for the physicist was real.)

And we should of course respect the motives of those that may disagree with us.

Jan 26, 2012 at 4:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

So the concern is that revealing what scientists are actually doing and saying, will have the result of impeaching or impugning them. And we must of course never impeach or impugn scientists, no matter how incompetent or dishonest they may be.

Jan 28, 2012 at 9:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterPunksta

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