Phil Jones offers myriad reasons for not sharing data

Phil Jones, of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, has stepped "aside" during an internal university investigation into the ethical questions arising from the thousands of e-mails and computer code recently released.

Three months before “stepping aside” from his position atop the most prestigious climate change institute in the world earlier this week, Phil Jones made a number of interesting comments. The first was this: “In the UK I am not considered a public servant.”

It was August, months before the explosion of Climategate, and I was drawing to a close the research for my forthcoming book on climate, Don’t Sell Your Coat. Jones was good enough to respond to questions I had then about data sharing, transparency, and United States Department of Energy funding. For, although an English researcher, Jones counted on the United States Department of Energy for substantial sums of money – millions of dollars.

Public servant or no, Jones was evidently bound by the Department of Energy’s data-sharing protocols, which were stringent: “Open sharing of all program data among researchers (and with the interested public) is critical to advancing the program’s mission … a copy of underlying data and a clear description of the method(s) of data analysis must be provided to any requester in a timely way.”

As Jones dealt with several such requests, but principally from his arch-nemesis, the Canadian amateur climatologist Steven McIntyre, he found it distasteful in the extreme to share raw temperature data that would allow McIntyre to look for problems in his data and work. As the world recently learned reading the e-mails among Jones and fellow-scientists, Jones threatened to delete data if McIntyre ever learned of the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act.

But as the Department of Energy policy from this side of the Atlantic makes clear, no Freedom of Information request is even necessary in order to compel Jones, or any other DOE-funded scientist, to share all data as well as all code that is used in grooming the data for publication (in such documents as the IPCC 4th Assessment published in 2007). What Freedom of Information policy in the United Kingdom does require, however, is preserving any documents that are known to be sought via Freedom of Information request. Jones, in the trove of released e-mails, asks his peers to delete precisely these e-mails. Whether the internal investigation being conducted by the University of East Anglia determines that this was ethical remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether parliamentary investigations will be launched into the matter, as well as any inquiry by Scotland Yard.

As I said, Jones made several odd comments in August regarding unavailable data. The second bizarro statement regarded the meteorology agencies from which his Climatic Research Unit obtained data in the first place. “It is the Met services that you should be lambasting,” Jones wrote. “I have been for years, but have not gotten very far.” Two quick points: First, I never lambasted Jones but merely asked if he thought that greater transparency might better serve science, and himself, in the long run. Second, Jones, at least until today, could not verify his claim to have fought with European meteorological agencies himself. He had, however, alluded in one of the recently released e-mails to just such a gambit involving the agencies: “Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people,
so I will be hiding behind them.”

Just to be safe, however, Jones did have data removed from a University of East Anglia server during the summer of 2009. When pressed by me in our e-mail exchange in August, his reasons for making the data disappear seemed disingenuous, at best:

Our ftp site has had some data deleted from it. It is a site we use when working with other scientists around the world. The datasets were not explained. It seemed easier to stop people wasting their time trying to determine what it was.

The words “other scientists” here are code for “people other than the Canadian amateur climatologist Steve McIntyre.” While McIntyre is a statistician without a Ph.D. in a climate-related field, he has nonetheless proved himself to be a capable intellectual adversary of Jones. Jones’s e-mails allude, more or less obsessively, to the Canadian, as do those of many of Jones’s closest colleagues. Far from being at risk of wasting time deciphering what he had in front of him, McIntyre had by that point been veritably begging for Jones’s data and computer code for years. He had been joined in his pursuit of data, by the way, by Ross McKitrick, with whom he had also authored a peer-reviewed paper successfully dressing down American climatologist Michael Mann.

It was Jones’s 2009 summertime deletion of data that prompted me to ask him about transparency in the first place. One other reason Jones offered for refusing to share data appeared bizarre, to say the least:

I will say one more thing. Have you considered this issue from a perspective of a Met Service in Africa or South America. I have been told by people from these Met Services that one of the reasons they restrict access to data is that scientists in Europe and North America use their data to further their own scientific ends. This is a sort of data imperialism. They get nothing back and think of themselves as mere data collectors. They want to improve the lot of their scientists. I am able to help a few of them with grants to come and do MSc and PhD courses here at UEA, but it is only a few.

I take Jones at his word here, but it has been a matter of some surprise that he has not mentioned these issues in dealing with other journalists. More to the point, alluding to the plight of underprivileged meteorologists as a means of explaining why data sharing should not be moved forward as expeditiously as possible is, for lack of a better word, weird.

It’s interesting, and there’s likely a story there, but it’s still weird. Jones’s data, as he is very aware, is one of the linchpins of the IPCC’s sternest warnings about the fate of humanity and our ability to continue operating world economies with energy sources that are available now. While preserving the feelings of several dozen meteorologists might be praiseworthy, compared to deciphering what is actually going on with the world’s climate it seems to be a trifling matter.

It will be interesting to see whether Jones is reinstated by his university and whether the world climatology community returns him to his former position as one of its top four or five de-facto leaders. If it does, you can bet that he will avoid sending e-mails like the following about the Canadians McKitrick and McIntyre that he sent in 2005:

The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear
is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than
to anyone.

As always, he signed it, “Cheers, Phil.”

About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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18 Responses to Phil Jones offers myriad reasons for not sharing data

  1. dusty says:

    dc oh no!!!

    just kidding

  2. tallbloke says:

    Thoughtful piece. Thank you Harold. If the chair of the investigating committee fails to see anything unethical in Phil Jones actions we will know that the state of institutional science is

    “Worse than we thought”

  3. Sensitive Jerk says:

    Thanks, I’ll point everyone I talk to about Climategate to this article as a jump-off point.

    Should the paragraph beginning “I’ll say one more thing” be in quotes?

  4. twawki says:

    We will see if the university wants to sink its own reputation as well through whitewashing the issue

  5. Corrinne Novak says:

    Thank you for a well written piece about this scandal.

    Any scientist with respect for the Scientific Method should roundly condemn the behavior of these people, no matter what side of the debate they stand on. Supposed “scientists” who try to defend Mr. Jones actions or sweep the whole thing under the rug should have the integrity of there own work brought into question because they obviously have no understanding of what the Scientific Method is.

    Scientist must understand the scandal is not just about Jones or AGW but about how government funding can corrupt university scientists. Therefore it is imperative that ALL scientist condemn these unethical practices.

  6. Denbo says:

    I’ve been a lurker at cliamate audit for a while and found it rather hard to believe the behavior of Phil Jones. For the longest time I didn’t quite believe McIntyre’s issues with Jones.

    Seems I was terribly wrong.

  7. dave ward says:

    Thanks for this article – I’ve just followed the link at WUWT, so that you know!

    It’s interesting to hear about the US DOE policy – theoretically, could this be applied to any data used by a DOE funded study? If so it would shoot down Jones claims.

    The local police have called in Scotland Yard to help with their investigation into the “leak”, but all that seems to be of interest is who, and how. Not the much greater implications.

  8. cmb says:

    I fully support withholding any and all data from lying McKitrick and his denialist fraud operation to the fullest extent allowed by law.

    Day 14, still no scientific fraud uncovered from the CRU hack.

    • Harold Ambler says:

      Hi Mark,

      The United States Congress, through the Wegman Report, determined that Michael Mann’s use of statistics to produce the hockey stick was riddled with errors and supported by chummy, peer review gone wrong. The Wegman Report was made possible, originally, by Steve McIntyre’s debunking.

      It remains to be seen whether CRU was hacked or, instead, a whistle-blower released the materials. The CRU e-mails and code reveal attempts at coercion, data manipulation and deletion, and efforts to evade Freedom of Information requests (at a minimum). — H.A.

  9. I will say one more thing. Have you considered this issue from a perspective of a Met Service in Africa or South America. I have been told by people from these Met Services that one of the reasons they restrict access to data is that scientists in Europe and North America use their data to further their own scientific ends. This is a sort of data imperialism. They get nothing back and think of themselves as mere data collectors.

    This is completely ridiculous.

    Get nothing back? How about a fully-tested understanding freely available to them over the internet, with no investment in scientific funding of their own?

    Geesh. I thought I had seen the acme of the victim mentality, but I was wrong.

  10. vjones says:

    From connections with UK academics, I think they like to think they are not public servants, as if they are somehow above such labels. Thanks for an insightful piece.

    In the less than two years following my conversion from warmist to skeptic I have learned a lot, but I have found what the emails revealed to be quite shocking. The data seems to be quite interesting too…so far.

  11. John Norris says:

    re: “It’s interesting, and there’s likely a story there, but it’s still weird. Jones’s data, as he is very aware, is one of the linchpins of the IPCC’s sternest warnings about the fate of humanity and our ability to continue operating world economies with energy sources that are available now.”

    Brilliant, brilliant observation. If the data really pointed to the fate of humanity you would surely protect it as such. Anyone that truly believed that would make multiple copies, distribute to multiple sites, and secure it so well as to never be lost. Thus he knew the data did not have that value, his e-mails to cohorts that threatened to delete it were seeking confirmation. They didn’t stop him, they knew it too.

  12. Ari Tai says:

    Wrt paying for data, doesn’t Jones understand his attitude is denying those 3rd world researchers their just income? He could have released the metadata (information specifying what locator or purchase order code would access what data from whom), as well as the code and datasets he developed that cleaned up the original sensor data, and met every need of those attempting to repeat his experiment. All these other folks (supporters as well as critics) would then have written checks to the local university in destitute Africa to get their own copy of the referenced data to feed into the process that Jones published.

    I expect Jones must like to abuse small animals too if he’ll stand by and starve the families of third-world researchers because he won’t send business their way.

    What is it about these leftist elites that make them so heartless?

  13. Martian Heatwave says:

    I should ebay my precautionary reflective headgear guaranteed to keep you cool on a planet scorched by hot breath.
    I have 40 trillion dollars worth. Trying to get Gore on the board of directors and issue an IPO so we can get busy with the financial instruments side of it.
    Better get your orders in before the prices go sky high!

  14. dusty says:

    I wish I could give some meaningful insight. Unfortunately I feel like all meaning is lost when discussions are held on public pages.
    Kind of makes my blood start to boil. So I’ll stay away from it

  15. Jean Demesure says:

    Jones’ “Africans don’t want to share data” excuse is rich : any functioning station’s data can be found here : at no fee !

    What’s more, Prof Will Alexander, a prominent S African hydrologists has stated that detailed hydrological data for more a centuries are available to be shared but the very reason climatologists don’t want to use such data is because they show perfect correlation with solar cycles and no correlation with CO2.

    Ignore inconvenient data is the basis of AGW science. The basis of why right now, AGWers prefer to describe “unprecedented warming” with glaciers receding, Arctic melting, sea rising but not with temperatures which are declining.

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