Memorandum submitted by the
Royal Society of Chemistry (CRU 42)

 

Summary

 

It is essential that the public and all non-specialists remain truly confident in the scientific method to provide a sound scientific evidence-base on which strong decisions can be made. Correspondingly, it is in the interest of scientists and the public that society as a whole has an understanding and an appreciation of science.

 

Access to reliable, up-to-date information is vital to advancing research and enabling the discovery or development of solutions to global issues. Sharing information is especially important in multi-disciplinary research, where progress is very much dependent on willing and effective communication between different speciality areas.

 

The RSC firmly believes that the benefits of scientific data being made available and thus open to scrutiny outweigh the perceived risks. To this end, scientific information should be made available on request as outlined in the Freedom of Information Act.

 

 

Submission

1. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) welcomes the opportunity to submit formal written evidence to the consultation on the disclosure of climate change data from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia.

 

2. The RSC is the UK Professional Body for chemical scientists and an international Learned Society for advancing the chemical sciences. Supported by a network of over 46,000 members worldwide and an internationally acclaimed publishing business, our activities span education and training, conferences and science policy, and the promotion of the chemical sciences to the public.

3. The document has been written from the perspective of the Royal Society of Chemistry. It is noteworthy that the University of East Anglia is a member of the RSC Partnership Scheme, however this in no way constitutes a conflict of interest. The RSC's Royal Charter obliges it "to serve the public interest" by acting in an independent advisory capacity, and we would therefore be very happy for this submission to be put into the public domain.

 

What are the implications of the disclosures for the integrity of scientific research?

 

4. The apparent resistance of researchers from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) to disclose research data has been widely portrayed as an indication of a lack of integrity in scientific research. The true nature of science dictates that research is transparent and robust enough to survive scrutiny. A lack of willingness to disseminate scientific information may infer that the scientific results or methods used are not robust enough to face scrutiny, even if this conjecture is not well-founded. This has far-reaching consequences for the reputation of science as a whole, with the ability to undermine the public's confidence in science.

 

5. It is essential that the public and all non-specialists remain truly confident in the scientific method to provide a sound scientific evidence-base on which strong decisions can be made. Correspondingly, it is in the interest of scientists and the public that society as a whole has an understanding and an appreciation of science. The RSC strongly supports the dissemination of chemical knowledge to foster and encourage the growth and application of the chemical sciences, as stated in its Royal Charter. This includes the dissemination of scientific knowledge as a means to advance public understanding and the learning of science.

 

6. The dissemination of scientific information is central to progressing scientific developments, as it is based on a sound knowledge of preceding research.[1] Access to reliable, up-to-date information is vital to advancing research and enabling the discovery or development of solutions to global issues. Sharing information is especially important in multi-disciplinary research, where progress is very much dependent on willing and effective communication between different speciality areas.

 

7. It is also imperative that scientific information is made available to the wider community for scrutiny: the validity and essence of research relies upon its ability to stand up to review. In fact, advances in science frequently occur when the prevailing view is challenged by informed scepticism, this is fundamental to the scientific method and should be encouraged, even if controversial. The RSC firmly believes that the benefits of scientific data being made available and thus open to scrutiny outweigh the perceived risks. To this end, scientific information should be made available on request as outlined in the Freedom of Information Act. Furthermore, research needs to be presented in an accurate and reliable manner in the correct context in order to optimise this process. It may also be necessary to incorporate an independent auditing system into peer review with the ability to demand access to raw data sets to ensure best practices are being adhered to.

 

8. With the increased use of electronic media, access to information is widespread for scientists and the public alike. While this is a great benefit to society, the quality and validity of information available raises complex problems as valid scientific information and general opinion are presented side by side. The inability to decipher which information is legitimate, results in confusion, misinterpretation and may lead to mistrust of 'science'. There needs to be a clearer understanding in the public domain of what constitutes a reliable source, including an appreciation for the process that is used for disseminating research and the advantages of peer review.

 

9. The peer review system is central to the credibility of science: its purpose to prevent the dissemination of unwarranted claims and unacceptable interpretations. Formally published scientific research is subject to this authoritative process whereby a community of qualified, impartial experts examine the information and possess the ability to prevent publication. Authors generally protect their data until it has been peer-reviewed and published in a formal publication due to the competitive nature of research.

 


 

10. The issue of misinformation in the public domain must also be tackled. Just as the scientific community must be open with regard to their evidence base, those who disagree must also provide a clear and verifiable backing for their argument, if they wish their opinions to be given weight. When disagreements occur, the validity of the analysis must be established before credence can be given to any opinion. Increased understanding of the process of scientific research, firstly in the government, but also within the media and general public, is vital in order to foster a more open sharing of information.

 

11. Support from the scientific community is needed to provide context and to explain the process by which conclusions are reached. Encouraging scientists to openly engage with the public can only be achieved if researchers are given the necessary backing in the face of any unfounded arguments against their work. This support must come from the highest levels, sending out a strong message on the importance of scientific methodology and research and promoting open sharing of information between scientists and the wider community.

 

Are the terms of reference and scope of the Independent Review announced on 3 December 2009 by UEA adequate?

 

12. The terms of reference and scope of the independent review are adequate, although some wider reaching aspects must also be examined. The effect on other researchers working in this area such as independent researchers, as well as those collaborating with CRU, should be explored. The impact of this incident on the public perception of the CRU and UEA as a whole should also be considered as a measuring stick for the implications of such actions in the public domain. The manner in which the findings from the items set out are interpreted and applied will determine their value.

 

13. As has been set out in the review, it is necessary to investigate the email exchanges which were discovered along with other relevant CRU information to establish whether data have been manipulated or suppressed. This is, not only needed in order to identify any unacceptable behaviour, but also to verify the results which have been published. This is vital in clarifying the severity of the acts carried out by those scientists at the CRU involved, i.e. whether it was a misguided protection of their work or a malicious misrepresentation of data.


 

 

14. The review of practices surrounding CRU's use of peer review and dissemination of data should be used to shed light on how these comply with established best scientific practice. Any failings in this area should be examined in the context of the research methods used and any deviations should be assigned either to the individual researchers or to inadequate updating of the best practice to suit research in the digital age.[2] This will beget more valuable information on the motivation and the reasoning behind the conduct of researchers at CRU.

 

15. Research institutions should review established protocols regarding the management of, and access to, research data to ensure that they remain up to date and clear. This process must be developed in collaboration with researchers so that its importance can be understood. The current practices in CRU and UEA must be examined to ensure the unit and the institution fulfil public regulations and that they offer support to researchers to ensure compliance.

 

16. The review of the security issues surrounding the release of information is an important internal issue for CRU and UEA. Furthermore, the RSC supports investigations into the highly irregular manner in which information was obtained from the researchers.

 

 

How independent are the other two international data sets?

 

17. From the information available, the RSC cannot comment on this issue.

 

Royal Society of Chemistry

February 2010



1 although serendipitous advances are also well recognised

[2] "Ensuring the integrity, accessibility and stewardship of research data in the digital age" Committee on Ensuring the Utility and Integrity of Research Data in a Digital Age; National Academy of

Sciences, 2009