Climate Research Unit broke freedom of information rules

The Times Online reports:

The university at the centre of the climate change row over stolen e-mails broke the law by refusing to hand over its raw data for public scrutiny.

The University of East Anglia breached the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to comply with requests for data concerning claims by its scientists that man-made emissions were causing global warming.

The Information Commissioner’s Office decided that UEA failed in its duties under the Act but said that it could not prosecute those involved because the complaint was made too late, The Times has learnt. The ICO is now
seeking to change the law to allow prosecutions if a complaint is made more than six months after a breach.

This does not surprise me. Some of the emails demonstrated an appalling attitude to the Freedom of Information Act (let alone the transparency regarding methods and data that scientists should display) and some even hinted at or proposed actions that would be in violation of that Act.

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Climategate: On CRU, freedom of information and access to data

Both The TaxPayers’ Alliance and Watts Up With That tackle the issue of the CRU and its responses to Freedom of Information Act requests. The emails they cover show resistance to answering freedom of information act requests on the part of CRU members. Andrew Bolt also highlights relevant emails. It certainly looks as if Phil Jones et al were reluctant to hand data out to people, such as Steve McIntyre, who they regarded as “deniers” of global warming. We also see requests to delete emails regarding the IPCC AR4  and a suggestion that Jones might delete emails that are subject to a FoIA request (which would be illegal), though he later notes concerns from the University that such deletion should not occur.

The reason this should be of concern is the same reason the loss of the raw data should be of concern. For scientists to fully assess a piece of work they must be able to get hold of and question the data and the methods behind that work. Yet here we have some of the key scientists involved in the research behind climate change resisting releasing the data to their critics, and worse still losing some of it!

I can understand some of the comments about private emails remaining private, but when it comes to published results that are part of the scientific record, it seems to me that there should be total transparency regarding the data and methods used to arrive at those results in order to enable adequate scrutiny and replication of results by other scientists. This should go doubly for publicly funded work such as that of the CRU and especially for work with public policy ramifications such as that on anthropogenic global warming. A concrete example of the value of allowing people with different viewpoints and methods to access data is given in the National Post which has a neat article that illustrates how different methods of averaging can give different results.

The CRU say they have agreements with the providers of some of their data not to hand it to third parties, and this obviously constrains the extent to which they can hand out data. But the email also demonstrate an unwillingness to hand out data (and even to delete correspondence regarding the IPCC’s AR4) that went beyond such concerns which is unjustified and undermines the scientific process.

Update: Bishop Hill’s account of Steve McIntyre’s attempts to examine the work of the CRU’s Keith Briffa demonstrates a long running reluctance and resistance by Briffa to release data lasting right upto 10 years after the original publication, as well as demonstrating how differing selections of data can alter the results one gets. This reluctance to release the data used to make claims does not engender trust in the scientists concerned.

Climategate: CRU’s climate change data dumped

Clarification: Below I should have written “scientific integrity”, as that’s what I’d intended. The dumping may not have had a dishonest motivation, but it does undermine the ability of other researchers to reproduce the analyses and predictions of the CRU and thus the scientific integrity of their work. The context of the resistance to releasing data under the freedom of information act, documented in some of the leaked emails, makes it look suspicious but does not prove dishonesty.

It looks as if my earlier discussion of the “Mike’s Nature trick” email may become irrelevant to assessing the integrity of the CRU team:

SCIENTISTS at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based.

It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.

The UEA’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) was forced to reveal the loss following requests for the data under Freedom of Information legislation.

The data were gathered from weather stations around the world and then adjusted to take account of variables in the way they were collected. The revised figures were kept, but the originals — stored on paper and magnetic tape — were dumped to save space when the CRU moved to a new building.

from Climate change data dumped – Times Online.

In the context of these emails, which talk about resisting FOI requests and even include a suggestion to delete data subject to a FOI request (which would be illegal) this admission from the CRU does not look good at all.

Fame at last

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On FoIA and the security services’ role

An anonymous commenter has made an interesting point in response to my discussion of the impact of the Freedom of Information Act on the security services. Responding to the point that the processing of any FoIA request will draw resources away from the security services’ core duty of protecting the country, the commenter writes:

Not so – in the extreme case that the government itself becomes an enemy of the country, time spent by the security services documenting their activities for the public *becomes* their core duty.(Colour, boldface and italics added)

Of course there is also the option of the security services using their more secretive powers to undermine or overthrow the govt in such circumstances. Either way, the scenario posited would be very dangerous territory to be in and would require considerable bravery and intelligence to deal with.

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More on FoIA requests

Spy.org.uk have responded to my previous article on FoIA requests. They add some further points to those I made myself. As well as noting that section 14 of the FoIA allows departments to reject vexatious requests, they go on to point out:

In any case, the Publication Schemes established by the FOIA in the run up to January 1st this year all, obviously, provide phone, postal addresses, fax and email contacts with the teams of civil servants, well away from the operational “sharp end” of the organisation, who have been tasked and funded to deal with and filter any “vexatious” or “disruptive” requests, and to comply with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which is the law of the land. (Emphasis added)

This raises a key point. Any sensible implementation of the FoIA by the security agencies should have ensured that those dealing with e.g. surveillance operations or analysis of the data obtained via such operations should not be dealing with the processing of FoIA requests. It should have involved creating entirely separate teams for processing the requests, hired with extra funds to set them up so that existing operations do not get disrupted.

Thus even if processing FoIA requests posed a higher than expected burden the effect should simply be to stretch the FoIA request teams (who should then point out the problem to management) and should not impact on the other activities in the organisation concerned.

Of course that’s no excuse for anyone who sends frivolous requests (which will waste taxpayers money and civil servants’ time if nothing else), but that is not what I or spy.org.uk were proposing to do.

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Is Spy.org.uk wrong to solicit suggestions for FoIA requests?

Spy.org.uk recently asked for suggestions for requests for information to make under the Freedom of Information Act(FoIA).

They will take some of the requests they receive and ask for the information via the FoIA procedures and then track the progress of the requests. This seemed to me to be a valuable exercise in testing out how well FoIA will work in practice, enabling people to hold the government to account for its promises regarding FoIA.

I’ve received comments from a friend that were very critical of this action (and by implication my support for it). To paraphrase, I was asked if I’d prefer that the security agencies waste time dealing with phoney FoIA requests or if I thought their time was better spent on protecting UK citizens.

I would argue in response that making FoIA requests for the purpose seeing how well FoIA works in practice is an entirely legitimate exercise, so long as it is done with care and they don’t flood the govt with frivolous requests.

If they were to carefully choose a handful of requests on the basis of there being a clear public interest in the release of the information, and no strong overriding objections (e.g. no clear reason to invoke the exemptions) then I would argue both that the exercise is a legitimate means of highlighting how well FoIA works in practice and that the burden on the departments processing the requests would be minimal. I hope and expect Spy.org.uk to do this.

If on the other hand they simply submitted every suggested request without regards to whether the information is already available elsewhere, whether the exemptions would clearly apply and whether the information requested is of real public interest, then I’d agree that would involve a waste of the government’s time and resources in processing the requests. I do not support such an exercise.

Note that any FoIA request, valid or otherwise, that is processed by the security services will take time and resources away from their core duties of protecting the country. This point along with the nature of the work they do is, I presume, the prime reason why Section 23 of the FoIA provides an absolute exemption for information supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters (see also Section 2 on the effect of the exemptions). GCHQ, MI5 et al are all explicitly listed as being such bodies.

Of course some processing may need to be done by the security services for the purposes of determining whether the information requested is information that is supplied by or related to the security services. However ISTM that only a small fraction of the likely requests would involve the security services and the exemption will minimise the burden imposed by the remainder.

I’d add that the government has had 4 years since FoIA went through parliament in order to ensure that the security services receive the extra resources they may need to process FoIA requests.

It seems to me obvious that campaigners like spy.org.uk would mount exercises to test the FoIA out to see if, in practice, it delivers on the governments promises related to FoIA and that this is a legitimate exercise so long as it doesn’t amount to an attempt to flood the govt with requests. Given that and the 4 year implementation period, failure of the government to adequately resource the security agencies and other departments to deal with FoIA requests would seem to me to be a failure of the government to implement the Act properly and responsibility would lie squarely with the government, not those making the requests.

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