When it comes to obtaining research data, Canadian academic Steve Easterbrook said it best: “Any fool knows you don’t get data from a scientist by using FOI requests, you do it by stroking their ego a little, or by engaging them with a compelling research idea that you need the data to pursue.”
“And in the rare cases where this doesn’t work, you do some extra work yourself to reconstruct the data you need using other sources, or you test your hypothesis using a different approach (because it’s the research result we care about, not any particular dataset).”
This wisdom was lost on Oxford academic Jonathan Jones, who chose to pursue climate data from the University of East Anglia through the UK freedom of information (FOI) system.
On 23 June 2011, he won the right to obtain the information after appealing the university’s refusal to release it to the UK information commissioner. In two related decisions, the commissioner found the information sought by Jones should be released.
Jones is not a climate researcher himself and the use he intends to make of the data appears to be purely symbolic.
“I am extremely concerned about the apparent pattern of secrecy and evasion [by climate researchers],” he said.
“My sole aim is to help restore climate science to something more closely resembling scientific norms.”
It is wonderfully ironic that an academic thinks pursuing legal claims will “help restore … something more closely resembling scientific norms.”
As a lawyer I welcome the move to turn science into a legal battlefield. Lawyers are naturally learned on all topics so we will be much better than scientists on finding all scientific truths.
Fred Pearce of the Guardian says “The decision … is being hailed as a landmark”.
Cooler heads than Pearce will see that the decisions are largely symbolic. The value of a decision of the UK information commissioner as a legal precedent is very slight.
Courts and similar bodies in the UK and other countries are not bound by the decisions. Even new cases before the UK information commissioner will depend on their own facts. A future case against university researchers may come to a different conclusion.
The Guardian article implies that the decisions establish some of the past dark claims against climate researchers are legitimate.
In fact, the decisions merely say that the exemptions under the UK FOI laws that the university relied upon do not apply and the information must be released. There is no finding of impropriety by the researchers involved or the university.
FOI laws in all countries, including the USA, Australia and the UK, provide many exemptions when information need not be released in response to an FOI request.
It was lawful for the university concerned to rely upon those exemptions in refusing to release the requested information. The exemptions are often complex and difficult to apply.
The appeal to the information commissioner is provided in the UK FOI laws and the commissioner has reached a different conclusion to the application of the exemptions than the university reached. Nothing wrong with that.
The implications of the decisions for climate science are likely to be equally symbolic.
The University of East Anglia is one of several repositories of global temperature records. The datasets involved are enormous and are largely already available to the public and other researchers.
Even if problems were found with the dataset used by the University of East Anglia, there are independent datasets (including sea, land and satellite records) that confirm rising global temperatures.
Multiple inquiries into the emails stolen from the University of East Anglia in 2009 (know as “Climategate”) have found that there was no misconduct involved.
So what do these decisions mean?
Very little in substance, but watch for the wild spin placed on them by people who want climate change to disappear without society needing to lift a finger.