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Oxburgh Report Clears Controversial Climate Research Unit

Just over 2 months since the University of East Anglia (UEA) announced an independent "reappraisal of the science" of its Climatic Research Unit's (CRU's) key publications, the result is in. The assessment panel today released a report concluding that CRU's research was honest and fair, even though the statistical methods and bookkeeping skills employed by the scientists there could have been improved. "We found absolutely no evidence of impropriety whatsoever," panel Chair Ron Oxburgh, a former geologist and Shell chair, said at a media briefing this morning.

The Oxburgh inquiry follows the furor over the release of private e-mails by and to the department's climate scientists, which skeptics of humanmade global warming say show evidence of data tampering. While rejecting those claims and endorsing the overall science of CRU, the panel did find it "surprising that research in an area that depends so heavily on statistical methods has not been carried out in close collaboration with professional statisticians." The panel, which included statistician David Hand of the Imperial College London, concluded that outdated statistical methods had been used as a result, although panel members didn't think that more sophisticated methods would have altered the researchers' conclusions.

The report also refers to CRU's researchers as being "slightly disorganised," but Oxburgh sympathised with the small research group that suddenly found itself at the center of a media frenzy. "The individuals concerned had no idea that their work would ever be of such high public profile, and as a result their record keeping wasn't very good," he said. "If I was asked to produce records of all of the research that I did 10 or 12 years ago, I would be hard pushed to do so." Oxburgh said he hoped lessons would be learned from this case, and he predicted that climate scientists would improve their bookkeeping practices.

Yet climate scientist Myles Allen of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, is cautious about the panel's call for improved bookkeeping so that others can later review a body's work: "Science generally progresses by taking different approaches to problems and either confirming or refuting published results, not by 'auditing' old calculations. There is a danger that if climate science starts to be treated as a bookkeeping exercise, this would actually impede progress in understanding how the real Earth system works."

UEA responded to the Oxburgh report in a press statement: "We welcome the report by the Lord Oxburgh's independent panel, both in respect of the CRU being cleared of any scientific impropriety and dishonesty, and the suggestions made for improvement in some other areas."

Multiple inquires have been launched into the CRU matter, including one recently concluded by a House of Commons committee. All eyes are now turning to the inquiry headed by higher education official Muir Russell that is investigating whether the leaked e-mails are evidence of poor scientific practices, such as improperly withholding data. That panel should deliver its conclusions before the end of spring.