The climate scientists at the centre of a media storm over leaked emails were yesterday cleared of accusations that they fudged their results and silenced critics, but a review found they had failed to be open enough about their work.
Sir Muir Russell, the senior civil servant who led a six-month inquiry into the affair, said the "rigour and honesty" of the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) were not in doubt. His investigation concluded they did not subvert the peer review process to censor criticism and that key data was freely available and could be used by any "competent" researcher.
But the panel said the scientists' responses to "reasonable requests for information" had been "unhelpful and defensive". The inquiry found "emails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable should a subsequent request be made for them" and that there had been "a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness". Scientists also failed to appreciate the risk their lack of transparency posed to the university and "indeed to the credibility of UK climate science".
The controversy began when 13 years of emails from CRU scientists were released online last year. Climate change sceptics claimed they showed scientists manipulating and suppressing data to back up a theory of manmade climate change. Critics also alleged the scientists abused their positions to cover up flaws and distort the peer review process that determines which studies are published in journals, and so enter the scientific record. Some alleged the emails cast doubt on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Announcing the findings, Russell said: "Ultimately this has to be about what they did, not what they said. The honesty and rigour of CRU as scientists are not in doubt ... We have not found any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments."
The review is the third and final inquiry into the email affair, and effectively clears Professor Phil Jones, head of the CRU, and his colleagues of the most serious charges. Questions remain over the way they responded to requests for information from people outside the conventional scientific arena, some of whom were critics of Jones. "We do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA," said the report, commissioned by UEA at a cost of £200,000.
It also criticised the CRU scientists for failing to include proper labels on a 1999 graph prepared for the World Meteorological Organisation, which was the subject of an infamous email about Jones using a "trick" to "hide the decline". The panel said the result was misleading, though they accepted this was not deliberate as the necessary caveats had been included in the report text.
Acknowledging that the digital age brought a greater demand for openness and access to data, it concluded "like it or not, this indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century." Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of UEA, said the university accepted the report's conclusion that it should have been more open. "The need to develop a culture of greater openness and transparency in CRU is something we faced up to internally some months ago and we are already working to put right."
He hoped the review would "finally lay to rest conspiracy theories, untruths and misunderstandings" that had been circulating, and that the "wilder assertions" about the climate science community would now stop.
Jones issued a statement which said: "I am, of course, extremely relieved that this review has now been completed. We have maintained all along that our science is honest and sound and this has been vindicated now by three different independent external bodies. There are lessons to be learned and I need time to reflect on them." Jones is to be director of research at CRU. Acton said this was "not a demotion but a shift in emphasis of role".
Ed Miliband, the former climate change secretary, said: "Muir Russell has given the world a clear message: we should not believe those who tell us that one string of emails undermines years of climate science. We should also learn lessons because maximum openness and transparency is the best weapon against those who want us to stick our heads in the sand as if climate change isn't happening. Now the world needs to step up the momentum again and get the deal that eluded us at Copenhagen."
Writing on Comment is Free, Dr Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, who testified to the inquiry, said: "The Russell review has rejected all claims of serious scientific misconduct. But he does identify failures, evasions, misleading actions, unjustifiable delays, and pervasive unhelpfulness – all of which amounts to severely sub-optimal academic practice. Climate science will never be the same again."
Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said: "It is clear that greater transparency is required in climate research because of the intense public interest in it, and its profound implications for society. However, it is also now very apparent that many so-called sceptics owe a huge apology to the public for having presented the email messages as evidence that climate change is a hoax carried out by a conspiracy of dishonest scientists."
Acton said: "CRU will be more closely integrated in the bigger school of environmental sciences and a key difference is to place some of the administrative burden that Phil had before this incident on the head of the school."
Bob Watson, chief scientific advisor to the department of environment, food and rural affairs, said that while it was clear scientists needed to be more transparent, he hoped the report would "draw a line under this episode so that the scientific community can begin to regain the trust of the public and continue to do its vital work on climate change, which remains one of the biggest challenges we face as a planet."
Myles Allen, head of the climate dynamics group at the University of Oxford, said: "What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective. Again and again, stories are sexed up with arch hints that these "revelations" might somehow impact on the evidence for human impact on climate. Yet the only error in actual data used for climate change detection to have emerged from this whole affair amounted to a few hundredths of a degree in the estimated global temperature of a couple of years in the 1870s."