An ethically dubious research project
Jul 2, 2013
Bishop Hill in Climate: Sceptics, FOI

Some months ago, I posted a link to a lecture by Chris Rapley. The lecture itself was fairly bog-standard chanting of the climate change sutras (the barmy sutras?), but towards the end was something rather intriguing. After the lecture proper was a Q&A session, and although most of this had been cut from the recording the first exchanges seem to have been missed. The first concerned whether we sceptics really believe the things we say, and Rapley's answer was, to say the least, fascinating. Have a listen here (the audio is slightly muffled at first, but improves).

Intrigued by the idea of an ethically dubious research project in which I had unwittingly featured as subject, I wrote to Prof Rapley to ask for more details. I received a cordial but somewhat frustrating response: he said that he couldn't recall where he had heard about the project and couldn't give any further details. Undeterred, I decided to put a request in to LSE under the Data Protection Act. Unfortunately, when the reply came it was not a lot of use either. According to the college's FOI staff, they had been able to identify the project, but I wasn't actually a subject of it.

I had asked James Delingpole and Sonja Boehmer Christiansen if they had been interviewed, but they could not recall anything of the sort. This seemed very strange. It seemed as if nobody that Rapley had said had been interviewed as part of the project had actually been approached at all.

Somewhat bemused, I decided to see what I could find out about the project anyway and I stuck in an FOI request to LSE, asking for the name of the student, the supervisor, and for a copy of the thesis.

That request was answered a week or so ago. Readers will be unsurprised to learn that it has been refused, with LSE ruling that none of the details are disclosable.

The project in question was an unpublished, final dissertation of a student on the MSc Environmental Policy and Regulation, in the department of Geography and the Environment. As such, it qualifies as a piece of examined work, which would be treated as personal information under the Data Protection Act, and so would be exempt from release under the Freedom of Information act under section 40(2). Under the Data Protection Act, the definition of this kind of examined work ‘includes any process for determining the knowledge, intelligence, skill or ability of a candidate by reference to his performance in any test, work or other activity.’ You can read more about this at paragraphs 8 and 9 of Schedule 7 of the Data Protection act, (available here I can also confirm that there are no ‘outputs’ relating to this dissertation.

Names are withheld from examined work of this kind as a matter of course, and instead they are submitted under examination candidate number. It is also not School policy to release the names of supervisors or examiners in these circumstances. Such information is similarly exempt from release under section 40 of the Freedom of Information act, as it constitutes personal information.

Yes, folks, MSc theses at LSE are official secrets and may not be seen by the public under FOI.


I have, of course, appealed.

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