'Climategate': leaked emails push scientists toward transparency
The leaked emails from a British university don’t undermine climate-change theory, most scientists insist. But several are calling for more transparency in the global-warming field. On Monday, climate talks begin in Copenhagen, Demark.
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“This puts the whole field under a cloud,” he says.Skip to next paragraph
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Scientists behaving badly
The e-mails open a window onto a side of competitive scientific research the public seldom sees, including back-stabbing and politicking.
“The sort of behavior seen in the e-mails is not unusual in academia,” says Roger Pielke Jr., a specialist in science policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But “it’s not the sort of behavior that gives you faith” when decisions affecting the environmental future of billions of people are at stake.
In one widely cited e-mail from CRU’s Dr. Jones to Dr. Mann, Jones verbally smacks down two research papers, then writes that he and a colleague will find a way to keep them out of the 2007 IPCC reports “even if we have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is.” (Both papers were ultimately cited and discussed in the IPCC reports.)
The inclination to block other views, however, wasn’t limited to these scientists. A 2001 e-mail from Thomas Crowley, a researcher at Texas A&M University in College Station, cautions that a colleague might try to use a similar tactic on them.
But even some targets of the e-mails say the scientific enterprise can self-correct to compensate for the failings of scientists. Eduardo Zorita of the GKSS Research Center’s Institute for Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany – a target of ire in some e-mails – notes that two other CRU researchers and e-mail authors should be commended for not yielding to pressure to convey “a distorted picture” of some research.
“The net result of this behavior is that a few deserving papers might not have gotten published or included in the IPCC assessment report,” says Judith Curry, a tropical-climate specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in an e-mail exchange. She adds, “Groupthink can slow things down, but eventually the scientific process will self-correct.”
Still, she and others argue for greater transparency in the way the science is conducted. One approach might be termed the Virtual Climate Observatory, loosely modeled on a system astronomers use to archive data coming in from space- and land-based telescopes. Astronomers asking to use federally funded telescopes must turn their data over to the virtual observatory a year to 18 months after gathering it.
Funding agencies in the United States already expect researchers to put their data into the public domain two years after it’s gathered, Dr. Curry notes. “But this is clearly not enforced,” she adds.
More public ‘ownership’
Others suggest changes in the IPCC process. The body is supposed to avoid favoring one set of policies over another. But that doesn’t always happen, some say.
Germany’s Dr. Zarita says some of the researchers involved in the e-mail controversy should be banned from serving as IPCC authors or reviewers. At the least, Dr. Pielke suggests, a scientist who contributes research to the climate-policy discussion shouldn’t sit on the panel assessing his or her work.
Greater transparency and wider public access would also give the public a sense of ownership in the climate-science enterprise – and allow people with the interest and math skills to get a glimpse of how the work is done.
“That gives more trust and credibility to the process,” Pielke says.
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