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

Memorandum submitted by the Royal Statistical Society (CRU 47)

  1.  The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) is the UK's only professional and learned society devoted to the interests of statistics and statisticians. Founded in 1834 it is also one of the most influential and prestigious statistical societies in the world. The Society has members in over 50 countries worldwide and is active in a wide range of areas both directly and indirectly pertaining to the study and application of statistics. It aims to promote public understanding of statistics and provide professional support to users of statistics and to statisticians.

  2.  The Society welcomes this opportunity to submit evidence to the Science and Technology committee on the disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia inquiry.

  3.  The Society's response relates to the first of the questions on which the committee invites submissions: "What are the implications of the disclosures for the integrity of scientific research?"

  4.  The RSS believes that the debate on global warming is best served by having the models used and the data on which they are based in the public domain. Where such information is publicly available it is possible independently to verify results. The ability to verify models using publicly available data is regarded as being of much greater importance than the specific content of email exchanges between researchers.

  5.  The position of the RSS regarding public dissemination of scientific data is that where the results of scientific analyses have been published or are otherwise in the public domain, the raw data, and associated meta-data, used for these analyses should, within reason, also be made available.

  6.  The qualification, within reason, is important because there are some cases where preservation of confidentiality is required to protect the rights of individuals to privacy. There are also occasions where the need to protect sensitive areas means that publication of all details is inappropriate. An example would be the exact locations of rare breeding species. Similarly, there are other occasions where overriding commercial interests may suggest that publication is inappropriate.

  7.  However, it is the view of the RSS that such commercial interest will only justifiably be invoked infrequently. An analogy with the common approach to patents is appropriate here. Companies may choose to keep their research secret and not patent it. However, if a patent is sought, the details of the invention must be revealed. Analogously, in the field of drug development, a pharmaceutical company is reimbursed not just because of the molecules it has discovered but also because of the knowledge it has acquired regarding the effects of those molecules. It cannot justifiably seek reimbursement for that knowledge and not make it available. Hence, by the point at which it seeks a commercial return, the data on efficacy and safety should be in the public domain.

  8.  It is also clearly unreasonable to require that any given scientist having published some research is then condemned to answer each and every question that might possibly arise from it.. For example, requests under the Freedom of Information act or the Environmental Information Regulations could overwhelm small groups of scientists. To avoid this it is best if data are stored in data centres that are professionally run and properly funded.

  9.  More widely, the basic case for publication of data includes that science progresses as an ongoing debate and not by a series of authoritative and oracular pronouncements and that the quality of that debate is best served by ensuring that all parties have access to the facts. It is well understood, for example, that peer review cannot guarantee that what is published is "correct". The best guarantor of scientific quality is that others are able to examine in detail the arguments that have been used and not just their published conclusions. It is important that experiments and calculations can be repeated to verify their conclusions. If data, or the methods used, are withheld, it is impossible to do this.

  10.  The RSS believes that a crucial step in improving the quality of the debate on global warming will be to place the data, the analysis methods and the models in the public domain.

February 2010

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