One of the important issues raised in the House Committee Letters was the potential conflict of iinterest between individuals in their capacity as IPCC authors reviewing (and even promoting) their own research. Kevin Vranes, Roger Pielke and Hans von Storch in different ways at Prometheus have all discussed the problem, with a surprising degree of acknowledgement of the problem. I will re-cap some recent discussions on the issue in this post. In a follow-up post, I will illustrate the problem discussed here in general terms by examining the IPCC discussion of MBH98-MBH99 itself, which proves to be a highly interesting exercise, and illustrates exactly why conflicts of interest should be avoided. I note in passing that Vranes, Pielke and von Storch, in different ways, have acknowledged the legitimacy of the House Committee letters to institutions (IPCC, NSF), with von Storch even suggesting that the House Committee expand its institutional scope to include Nature. All three commentators contest the legitimacy of the letters to the three individual scientists. However, all three frame their objections in the context of asking information of an author who was merely publishing his views in a journal, rather than framing their analysis in the specific context of letters to (say) Mann in his capacity as an IPCC author in a conflict of interest situation and none of them inquire as to the effect of the agreed conflict of interest on such legitimacy. I’ll visit this topic in a future post. We’ll try to tidy up the formating below; the formatting was updated today. Obviously, I’m pleased with the fact that this issue is on the table. In February 2005, I wrote the following in a National Post op-ed:
For example, Michael Mann had published an academic article announcing that the 1990s were the warmest decade in human history. He then became IPCC section author for the critical section surveying climate history of the last millennium, adopting the very graph used in his own paper on behalf of IPCC. For someone used to processes where prospectuses require qualifying reports from independent geologists, the lack of independence is simply breathtaking and a recipe for problems, regardless of the reasons initially prompting this strange arrangement.
Roger Pielke wrote favorably in a February column about these policy comments:
McIntyre also comments on the incestuous structure of the IPCC, “The inattentiveness of IPCC to verification is exacerbated by the lack of independence between authors with strong vested interests in previously published intellectual positions and IPCC section authors… For someone used to processes where prospectuses require qualifying reports from independent geologists, the lack of independence is simply breathtaking and a recipe for problems, regardless of the reasons initially prompting this strange arrangement.” McIntyre concludes by observing, “Businesses developed checks and balances because other peoples’ money was involved, not because businessmen are more virtuous than academics. Back when paleoclimate research had little implication outside academic seminar rooms, the lack of any adequate control procedures probably didn’t matter much. However, now that huge public policy decisions are based, at least in part, on such studies, sophisticated procedural controls need to be developed and imposed.” Of course, some scientists will reply to this in exactly opposite fashion, by saying that academics are more virtuous than business people so such checks are unnecessary. But whatever one thinks about the debate over the hockey stick, McIntyre’s views on climate science policy make good sense and are good for the community as a whole.
The House Committee Letters have picked up on this issue:
For example, one concern relates to whether IPCC review has been sufficiently robust and independent. We understand that Dr. Michael Mann, the lead author of the studies in question, was also a lead author of the IPCC chapter that assessed and reported this very same work, and that two co-authors of the studies were also contributing authors to the same chapter. Given the prominence these studies were accorded in the IPCC TAR, we seek to learn more about the facts and circumstances that led to acceptance and prominent use of this work in the IPCC TAR and to understand what this controversy indicates about the data quality of key IPCC studies.
In the first of the three recent Prometheus comments on the House Committee letters, Kevin Vranes quoted the above paragraph noting:
Third, the letters raise the issue of conflict of interest (without calling it that)… Whatever climatology scientists think of this concern, and whatever IPCC insiders know about its legitimacy, this is absolutely an appropriate concern of Congress, which should be doing a lot more oversight into conflict of interest (especially in writing of Executive Branch regulations and recommendations, but that’s a different story). The ultimate consumer of IPCC information is Congress and other major decision-making bodies. If Congress hears that there are questions about the information that they have been given, especially concerning such a politically touchy issue, it is their prerogative to investigate.
In hte second Prometheus comment, Roger Pielke says:
You have a conflict of interest problem (real or perceptual) as well, given that M of MBH was involved with reviewing his own work as an IPCC lead author. Again, this may be acceptable given the norms of the climate science community, but those are not the norms at play in the larger political world of climate science. Consider getting some good advice on institutional design and public relations. And above all, avoid the hubris that too often characterizes climate scientists in their interactions. What works in the academy often does not in the broader world.
In the third (guest) comment, Von Storch pretty much agree with this, although in different language.
The IPCC has failed to ensure that the assessment reports, which shall review the existing published knowledge and knowledge claims, should have been prepared by scientists not significantly involved in the research themselves. Instead, the IPCC has chosen to invite scientists, who dominate the debate about the considered issues, to participate in the assessment. This was already in the Second Assessment Report a contested problem, and the IPCC would have done better in inviting other, considerably more independent scientists for this task. Instead, the IPCC has asked scientists like Professor Mann to review his own work. This does not represent an "independent" review.
These are very strong statements from respected scientists, who have elsewhere disagreed with the House Committee. Conflicts of interest create big problems in prospectuses and securities commissions (who have oversight of prospectuses) pay attention to them. I’ll discuss the implications of conflicts of interest for IPCC Assessment Reports (which I regard as a form of scientific prospectus) in later posts.