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Simon Carr

Simon Carr: Scientist may find himself a convenient sacrificial lamb


There's a terrible rip that runs between politics and the professions; it carried poor David Kelly away, and I started worrying a bit for climate scientist Phil Jones as the Science Committee got into its stride.

There are similar issues of public trust involved. With Iraq and WMD we discovered that "the evidence was being fixed around the policy", as one of our heads of intelligence confided in the summer of 2002. With Dr Jones and Climategate, so-called, the same thing is happening – professionals are accused of fixing evidence round an international policy of man-made global warming. This isn't to say that man-made warming does or doesn't exist – it's the possibility of evidence-fixing, that's the rip that might carry away poor Dr Jones.

The Science Committee leaned on him, sometimes heavily. He's the leader of a three-man team producing very influential climate data. Revelations from his hacked emails have supported a suspicion that he is making a case rather than reporting the evidence. The price tag on the case he is making runs to trillions, so the stakes are high.

In that light, it doesn't look good that his unit has resisted requests to release their data, methodologies, their codes and programmes for general inspection. It's a big Trust Me, a committee member observed.

"I'm a scientist," Labour's Graham Stringer said. "If I want to check your results, I can't."

Dr Jones fiddled with that allegation (he's not without Westminster talent) but the committee didn't look persuaded. His reply to a request for information was quoted: "Why should I make data available to you when you only want to find something wrong with it?" Stringer concluded: "That is unscientific!"

His defence was a bit unscientific too: "I've obviously written some very awful emails," followed by a wry smile. But the committee declined to be charmed. Why wouldn't he release the codes?

"Because we had an awful lot of work invested in it."

Yes, by the sound of it there was considerable data smoothing and oiling and homogenising and substituting and standardising... I don't know much about statistics but I know what I like. And when a scientist says: "We couldn't keep the original data, only the added-value data," all sorts of sirens and alarms go off.

Richard Thomas, the former Information Commissioner, has spent his professional life in the political rip. But he survived, prospered, emerged with his reputation intact, because he sticks very squarely to what he knows.

Thus when he says, quoting one of the hacked emails: " 'Please delete this email' – to me as an ex-Commissioner, that is a prima facie case for investigation," that is impressive because it is so firmly in his ambit.

They may be looking for a blood sacrifice. If I were Dr Jones, I'd get the details of a transfusion service.