It wasn’t supposed to be this way…
I’ve avoided writing about the Climate Research Unit emails leak for a number of reasons. Firstly it is clearly a sensitive issue with personal ramifications for some and for many others just a very highly charged issue. Probably more importantly I simply haven’t had the time or energy to look into the documents myself. I haven’t, as it were, examined the raw data for myself, only other people’s interpretations. So I’ll try to stick to a very general issue here.
There are appear to be broadly two responses from the research community to this saga. One is to close ranks and to a certain extent say “nothing was done wrong here”. This is at some level, the tack taken by the Nature Editorial of 3 December, which was headed up with “Stolen e-mails have revealed no scientific conspiracy…”. The other response is that the scandal has exposed the shambolic way that we deal with collecting, archiving, and making available both data and analysis in science, as well as the endemic issues around the hoarding of data by those who have collected it.
At one level I belong strongly in the latter camp, but I also appreciate the dismay that must be felt by those who have looked at, and understand what the emails actually contain, and their complete inability to communicate this into the howling winds of what seems to a large extent a media beatup. I have long felt that the research community would one day be shocked by the public response when, for whatever reason, the media decided to make a story about the appalling data sharing practices of publicly funded academic researchers like myself. If I’d thought about it more deeply I should have realised that this would most likely be around climate data.
Today the Times reports on its front page that the UK Metererology Office is to review 160 years of climate data and has asked a range of contributing organisations to allow it to make data public. The details of this are hazy but if the UK Met Office is really going to make the data public this is a massive shift. I might be expected to be happy about this but I’m actually profoundly depressed. While it might in the longer term lead to more strongly worded and enforced policies it will also lead to data sharing being forever associated with “making the public happy”. My hope has always been that the sharing of the research record would come about because people started to see the benefits, because they could see the possibilities in partnership with the wider community, and that it made their research more effective. Not because the tabloids told us we should.
Collecting the best climate data and doing the best possible analysis on it is not an option. If we get this wrong and don’t act effectively then with some probability that is significantly above zero our world ends. The opportunity is there to make this the biggest, most important, and most effective research project ever undertaken. To actively involve the wider community in measurement. To get an army of open source coders to re-write, audit, and re-factor the analysis software. Even to involve the (positively engaged) sceptics, to use their interest and ability to look for holes and issues. Whether politicians will act on data is not the issue that the research community can or should address; what we need to be clear on is that we provide the best data, the best analysis, and an honest view of the uncertainties. Along with the ability of anyone to critically analyse the basis for those conclusions.
There is a clear and obvious problem with this path. One of the very few credible objections to open research that I have come across is that by making material available you open your inbox to a vast community of people who will just waste your time. The people who can’t be bothered to read the background literature or learn to use the tools; the ones who just want the right answer. This is nowhere more the case than it is with climate research and it forms the basis for the most reasonable explanation of why the CRU (and every other repository of climate data as far as I am aware) have not made more data or analysis software directly available.
There are no simple answers here, and my concern is that in a kneejerk response to suddenly make things available no-one will think to put in place the social and technical infrastructure that we need to support positive engagement, and to protect active researchers, both professional and amateur from time-wasters. Interestingly I think this infrastructure might look very similar to that which we need to build to effectively share the research we do, and effectively discover the relevant work of others. Infrastructure is never sexy, particularly in the middle of a crisis. But there is one thing in the practice of research that we forget at our peril. Any given researcher needs to earn the right to be taken seriously. No-one ever earns the right to shut people up. Picking out the objection that happens to be important is something we have to at least attempt to build into our systems.