The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 200-219)


1 MARCH 2010

  Q200  Chairman: He has said that this afternoon.

  Professor Beddington: He has explained that to you. Well, taken together, I think that is an extremely comprehensive inquiry. Could I also just concur while I have the chance with the comments of Julia Slingo? You did not pose me the question about whether what happened at UEA would undermine the IPCC. Professor Slingo answered that and I completely concur with her answer.

  Q201  Dr Naysmith: I was just going to ask Professor Slingo: one of the things that we have encountered in previous sessions is that the Met Office has to be asked for its data to be released. Is there any reason why there would be any reason to withhold any data that the Met Office is making available to CRU at East Anglia?

  Professor Slingo: We are not withholding any data that we have permission to release. You have to remember that the observations that went into the CRU dataset are fundamentally owned by the national met services, who, through the World Meteorological Organisation, have requirements upon them to make some of that publicly available. Those were the data we released in December.

  Q202  Dr Naysmith: So it is really just a formality?

  Professor Slingo: It is a formality. We wrote to 170 met services. We have so far had 58 have given permission and you will see that we now have two-thirds, soon to be three-quarters, of all the data that were used in the CRU record publicly available on our website.

  Q203  Mr Boswell: Are some of those offices still very closely connected to their national ministries of defence? Is that one of the constraints, that they are diffident about publishing or releasing the data?

  Professor Slingo: There are one or two that we have had replies from where they have ... Let us be clear; it is very few. Some governments see these data as having commercial value, and I should say that one of the reasons that we have now moved this whole construction of these datasets into the auspices of the World Meteorological Organisation is to deal with some of these issues about freedom of data. I think this is a really important international issue that we must get sorted out, because these datasets are absolutely crucial to the debate around climate change.

  Q204  Graham Stringer: Professor Beddington, some of the written submissions we have suggest that it is accepted that if a tobacco company pays for research into smoking, it tends to find that there is no damage done—that is the historical evidence. Is there a similar factor at work when tax dollars from the United States or tax pounds from this country go into research that the funding source affects the outcome? Having asked the question, do you think research should be done into that area?

  Professor Beddington: I do not think I would pose it there. If you are seeing research which is being funded, the control of the funder is to pose the question, in a sense, "We would like this particular piece of research done" but I do not believe there is any control whatsoever on the answer, certainly not in UK science.

  Q205  Graham Stringer: So you do not think it is worth research being done?

  Professor Beddington: I have not seen that there is a glaring problem in this area. I think that there are some areas of research which are problematic and where there is considerable controversy and I think the key thing there is to know that there is a controversy and that one does it, but in other areas of concern, even when there is controversy, there is an overwhelming burden of evidence and support from the scientific community. So I think it important to say it is not a soccer match—that is how I would probably put it—when you are in scientific controversy; it is not necessarily equal sides. In some areas, albeit that there are disputes about areas, the overwhelming base of support of the scientific community is in one direction or the other. On this? No, it is about even.

  Q206  Graham Stringer: Professor Slingo, were you here when Muir Russell gave his evidence?

  Professor Slingo: No, I was not. We were outside.

  Q207  Graham Stringer: He basically referred to the Wegman analysis of the argument about the hockey stick between McIntyre and Mann and the reason I refer to that is because you cite all the peer review that went on into the different assessments done by the IPCC but Wegman, after 10 years of argument, seemed to side with McIntyre, who was in a tiny minority on this issue, certainly in terms of the statistical mistakes that had been made in the original Mann paper. Does that not give you some cause to worry about the peer review process at that level?

  Professor Slingo: Not at all, no. The controversy around the original methods of Mann et al has been fully addressed in the peer reviewed literature and I think those issues are now largely resolved. As we have already said, the unequivocal rise in temperature during the latter half of the 20th century is now supported by many other variables in the climate system, let alone surface temperature, as we have already discussed. This goes back—and Bob Watson may like to comment on this because this was around when you were in charge of IPCC, I believe, Bob.

  Professor Watson: Yes. I think the key point is, a lot was made of the hockey stick but a much more important issue is what has happened in the last half-century of trying to say what has actually occurred within the climate system, what has changed, and whether we can attribute cause and effect. Therefore, the theoretical modelling that has been done has tried to ask whether we can explain the observed changes, especially since 1950, on natural phenomena alone—changes in solar radiation, changes in volcanic activity—and the answer is no. So one then asks the question whether we can explain the observed changes on a combination of natural phenomena and how we humans have affected the atmosphere, both with greenhouse gases and with aerosols and changes in land surface albedo, etc and the answer is yes, and that is when the IPCC came up with the conclusion that it is very likely, greater than 90% probability, that we humans are the major cause for the observed changes in the Earth's climate since the Second World War. So the hockey stick was an interesting idea of trying to look over the very long temperature of, say, the last thousand years or so, the tree ring data, and what has happened in the more modern instrumental record. It is all part of science to have a paper like the Mann paper and it can be challenged. I think it is now a fully resolved issue. On the issue you mentioned of funding, I think the tobacco issue is one of the worst examples where an industry did fund research and the results were clearly distorted, but in other areas—stratospheric ozone depletion, for example—the private sector has done superb research and it was very honest and had great integrity and was very consistent with research funded both in the United States and within the UK. So I would argue, having been a funder of research both in the US and in the UK, that one tries to get all issues on the table to get to the truth.

  Q208  Graham Stringer: Can I go back to Professor Beddington? I know you do not want to comment on the University of East Anglia case but I will try and ask it in a more general way, although it is obviously stimulated by East Anglia. Do you think it is acceptable that climate scientists or, for that matter, any other scientists refuse to publish the computer programmes that have provided the basis for their published papers?

  Professor Beddington: I think there is a question of timing. Computer programmes which actually incorporate a methodology should be published and should be available. I think that the methodology itself, which essentially is a mathematical algorithm which specifies what the computer programme is supposed to do, should be published and that should be generally available because computer programmes have errors in them, and therefore one of the reasons why one would want to publish them is to actually get that out. That is a general principle. I would certainly support that.

  Q209  Graham Stringer: That leads me nicely on to my last question. Is there a problem with scientific software? We have had emails from Professor Darrel Ince and from Professor Les Hatton saying that there are severe problems with scientific software. Do you think that is a general problem in UK or world science?

  Professor Beddington: I would probably ask Julia to comment in the context of climate change science, and I think that there are some issues here. For example, some of the coding in physics runs to a million lines and that can be extremely difficult to actually guarantee that this is correct but in fact, again, it is the weight of evidence, the fact that a number of people are working on the same thing, and you would expect when you get a set of people, a large number of people, working on it that problems will start to emerge. Some of these things are extremely complicated but in the context of the climate change discussions, Julia could probably comment better than I.

  Professor Slingo: Yes. Around the UEA issue, of course, we did put the code out at Christmas time, before Christmas, along with the data because I felt very strongly that we needed to have the code out there so that it could be checked. If you think about the sorts of codes that we use in climate modelling, we are literally talking of hundreds of thousands of lines of code—I know because I have written some of them—and of course, there will be errors in them. At least for the UK the codes that underpin our climate change projections are the same codes that we use to make our daily weather forecasts, so we test those codes twice a day for robustness.

  Q210  Graham Stringer: You do not always get it right though, do you?

  Professor Slingo: No, but that is not an error in the code; that is to do with the nature of the chaotic system that we are trying to forecast. Let us not confuse those. We test the code twice a day every day. We also share our code with the academic sector, so the model that we use for our climate prediction work and our weather forecasts, the unified model, is given out to academic institutions around the UK, and increasingly we licence it to several international met services: Australia, South Africa, South Korea and India. So these codes are being tested day in, day out, by a wide variety of users and I consider that to be an extremely important job that we do because that is how we find errors in our codes, and actually it is how we advance the science that goes into our codes as well. So of course, a code that is hundreds of thousands of lines long undoubtedly has a coding error in it somewhere, and we hope that through this process we will discover it. Most of the major testing is very robust.

  Q211  Chairman: Can I just follow up what Ian Stewart asked Professor Beddington? We heard from the ex-Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, earlier, who indicated—and we will have to check the record on this—that all data—and indeed Dr Naysmith enquired about methodology as well—if in fact it was funded through the public purse should be immediately available and should not require a Freedom of Information request to get it. Is that not something which you, as the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, should instruct?

  Professor Beddington: Yes. I obviously was not here to hear that comment. I would be interested to comment in detail when I have seen it. I think there are some issues to do with timing. For example, the research councils, NERC in particular, demand that any analysis that it is funding goes into its data centre12[13] but in terms of public bid, quite often scientists will want to have the first cut at the data so that they can do their analysis, because that is the way they will get their papers published, but subsequently that should be available. I think that is probably a reasonable way to go forward. I think the timing is therefore going to be an issue. In terms of the comments by the previous Commissioner on FOI, this is not an area I am well versed in, but I am very happy to have a look at what he actually said.

  Q212  Chairman: Can you see where we are going with this?

  Professor Beddington: Yes, I do.

  Q213  Chairman: That is quite an important issue because if all publicly funded research, the raw data, has to be made available when it is, if you like, constructed, and indeed the methodology, it actually saves people around the world a lot of time and effort, does it not?

  Professor Beddington: I think we must judge it in the context of individual scientists who are collecting data. There are some very large datasets which have a significant value, scientists have spent their lives collecting it, they then publish that and someone else does the analysis before them. This is somewhat demotivating, but once they have had the a chance to actually work—and there has to be some sort of sensible limit to look at data that you have actually collected—and publish on it, then it needs to be out into the open. So I think there is a timing issue which does need exploration for different sorts of subjects.

  Chairman: We would just ask you, as the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, if in fact you would reflect on those comments and perhaps feed those into the Muir Inquiry or indeed to make some statement yourself.

  Q214  Dr Naysmith: I think the most interesting series of experiments in this area is Gregor Mendel and his peas, because of course he was right, but he did refine his data that he published and people can still go back and do the original experiment, can they not?

  Professor Beddington: Sure. I think the difficulty arises where you cannot replicate experiments. If you have experiments that are replicable, then it is very straightforward to actually do that but taking the climate case, there has only been one history of our climate, so replication is much more problematic.

  Chairman: And there is only one Ian Stewart!

  Q215  Ian Stewart: Good evening. The Chairman really teased out of you the answer to the first part of the question I would have asked. However, I am conscious, Professor Beddington, that you said that you would not wish to comment on the CRU situation because of the investigation that is going on. In relation to Freedom of Information, we heard earlier that CRU went from two to four requests a year to 61, a very significant change in requests, although Richard Thomas did say that the FOI Commission did not actually anticipate higher requests than that in general for the CRU. Do you have any sympathy for scientists who find that they are bogged down by FOI requests and cannot get on with their research?

  Professor Beddington: I think that is a real issue for institutions that they need to be thinking about. Where you get an FOI request and it is a reasonably articulated request and appropriate, you pretty much should answer that. The volume of work is an issue for institutions but I certainly have sympathy for the individual scientists who are actually being in a sense expected to do all this extra work to provide their information. I think it is an institutional process. If a particular institution is overwhelmed—putting "overwhelmed" in inverted commas—or has a very large number of Freedom of Information requests to it, then it needs to be thinking how it addresses that as an issue but it should not, I believe, be a burden on the individual scientist.

  Q216  Ian Stewart: Do you both agree with that?

  Professor Slingo: Yes.

  Professor Watson: Yes.

  Q217  Chairman: Could I move on to Professor Slingo: on 24 February the Met Office issued a statement calling for a programme to deliver a new global temperature dataset, and you used the words "to augment current datasets, to refine current datasets and to follow on from the pioneering work of the University of East Anglia." Have you lost confidence in the existing datasets?

  Professor Slingo: Not at all, no.

  Q218  Chairman: So why are you calling for that to be done?

  Professor Slingo: What we are actually proposing is a new assessment which looks at much higher temporal resolution data, so in particular, if you think the CRU dataset looks just at monthly means, which is very helpful if you are interested in the global warming trend, the average changes in our climate, but what is very clear now is that we need to know much more than that; we need to know about extremes, we need to know about heat waves, daily extremes of temperature, the sorts of things we had in 2003, and whether those are changing as well. Many of the impacts of climate change will be felt through changes in extremes, probably more so than even just the average trend of global warming. What we have proposed as an international initiative under the World Meteorological Organisation is to create a new dataset that looks at daily or even sub-daily temperature, and following on from temperature then to do rainfall and other key climate variables that impact on society, ecosystems, biodiversity, and so forth. This was a really important initiative, one that actually we had been thinking about for some considerable time. We had an opportunity to present it to the Commission for Climatology, which is the appropriate body in the WMO. They meet every four years. It so happened that they were meeting this year in Turkey and we decided in discussion both with CRU and many international scientists that we should push ahead with this because we feel it is badly needed.

  Q219  Chairman: In your submission to the Committee you say that there are numerous studies that have tested the robustness of surface temperature records but we have received, and our stuff is now published, many submissions with contrary views. Why is there this confusion? Is that just normal scientists taking different views? The data is all there.

  Professor Slingo: Yes, as we have shown since we have released the data. The robustness of the temperature record, independent of how many stations you have, is not what our initiative is about at all.

13   12 Note by witness: NERC requires that grant recipients offer to deposit with it a copy of datasets resulting from the research supported, after it is completed. NERC then selects those it considers to be of long-term value, which are managed for long-term re-use and re-purposing. The data would normally be offered to one of NERC's designated data centres. Back

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