Climate scientists have recently been promoting the myth that providing data in response to FOI requests was interfering with their work. Nature uncritically accepted this myth in a recent editorial calling for action to protect climate-change researchers from “endless time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts.”:
If there are benefits to the e-mail theft, one is to highlight yet again the harassment that denialists inflict on some climate-change researchers, often in the form of endless, time-consuming demands for information under the US and UK Freedom of Information Acts. Governments and institutions need to provide tangible assistance for researchers facing such a burden…
While the scientific method is supposed to require fact checking, in this case, the mantra had merely been repeated over and over by climate scientists like a sort of tribal chant and, without carrying out even a modicum of due diligence to determine the veracity of the claims, Nature joined into the chant.
Today I’m going to review the allegation that U.S. scientists have been unduly burdened by FOI requests, showing that they haven’t. I’ll discuss the UK situation in a follow-up post (and would appreciate that commenters defer discussion of the UK situation until then.)
In the five-year period from 2005-2009, I made a total of three FOI requests to U.S. institutions. I am unaware of other FOI requests made by CA readers (there is no record of any such requests in CA posts included in the FOI category). Of the three requests, only one actually resulted in the provision of data under the FOI request. (In the other two cases, the institutions apparently planned to archive the data anyway and the requests were resolved outside FOI – see below.) To say that U.S. climate scientists were inconvenienced in any way by the provision of data in response to FOI requests is totally untrue. I will review each of the three FOI requests below.
FOI to NOAA regarding Jones et al 1990
My first FOI request to a US institution (NOAA) was in March 2007. This was the only request actually resulting in information being sent to me pursuant to the FOI request.
This FOI request requested station lists and data for networks (China and Australia) used in Jones et al 1990, an influential study on urban heat island effect that had then been recently cited in IPCC AR4. The request to NOAA was concurrent with an identical request to CRU (coauthors were at each institution.) Oddly, as of a year later, I hadn’t heard back from NOAA – not even an acknowledgement that my request was under consideration.
However, the parallel request to CRU was resolved expeditiously (anomalously.) In April 2007, they posted up station lists for China, Russia and Australia (cache here) As I result, I didn’t follow up with NOAA, as the request had become moot.
To my surprise, as I reported at CA here, I saw two NOAA presentations on the internet referring to my FOI request (not identifying me by name, but referring to an “international researcher” and quoting the exact language of my request.)
Mildly amused, I emailed Tom Karl of NOAA, twitting him about the oversight. He promptly apologized and sent me the station lists for the Russian network (by then moot as noted above.) They also provided information on U.S. stations that I hadn’t requested but appreciated. See here here . The data provided by NOAA consisted only of station lists (the original data having been overwritten by subsequent data) and was not extensive in scope.
IPCC Review Comments
My second FOI request to a U.S. institution, also in 2007, was about IPCC Review Comments.
As an IPCC reviewer, I had previously asked IPCC to provide me with AR4 Review Comments, which IPCC was obliged under its procedures to maintain in an open archive for up to 5 years. IPCC’s answer was that I could inspect a hard copy of the Review Comments in person at Harvard Library during limited hours, where I would be able to only copy up to 100 pages. In an internet age, I (and others) regarded this response as an affront to IPCC’s obligation to be “open and transparent”. This view was shared by some “community” climate scientists, who supported my request for an online archive (e.g. Andrew Dessler, James Annan.)
After IPCC refused to provide a digital version of the Review Comments, I submitted an FOI request to NOAA asking them for any copies of IPCC Review Comments in their possession (US FOI requiring institutions to provide digital copies of information if available). The Chair of Working Group 1 (Susan Solomon) and the head of the WG1 Technical Services Unit (Martin Manning) were both NOAA employees. Both of them had used their NOAA email addresses for their IPCC correspondence. Astonsihingly, NOAA refused the FOI request on the grounds that NOAA did not possess any relevant documents, apparently taking the legal position that correspondence by NOAA employees pertaining to IPCC was IPCC property. In my opinion, this unsupportable legal theory was simply one more case where a climate institution diminished its reputation by making an untrue and absurd statement.
However, shortly after the NOAA refusal, IPCC reversed its stance and placed the majority of Review Comments online. (While the online archive is very extensive, it does not include review comments if chapter authors evaded the requirement to archive all review comments, e.g. Eugene Wahl’s “off the record” review comments sent to Keith Briffa outside the IPCC system to Keith Briffa, or review comments by review editors, but that’s another story.)
My third FOI request was for the monthly tropospheric data for the 49 individual models used in Santer et al 2008. See here for Santer posts.
In October 2008, I had noticed that Santer had used obsolete observations (ending in 1999) and that some key results for model ensembles were reversed using up-to-date data. (Ross and I submitted a comment to IJC on this topic in January 2009, where it was promptly tied up by reviewers – see discussion in the Climategate Letters.)
I was interested in doing a similar comparison of Santer’s individual models with up-to-date data and, in late October 2009, I emailed Santer requesting the monthly tropospheric data used in the statistical analyses reported in Santer et al 2008. (Santer, by the way, is an employee of PCMDI, one of whose principal missions is to provide data to the research community in user-friendly formats.)
In one of the Climategate Letters [link], Tom Wigley suggested to Santer that the requested data would be of considerable benefit to the community and even recommended that Santer provide an even more extensive archive than I had requested. In January 2009, the requested data was placed online. Shortly thereafter, in response to a CA post, Dave Bader, Santer’s supervisor, notified me by email as follows (see here) that the archiving of the data was not in response to my FOI request and that Livermore had always planned to archive the data:
I want to clarify several mis-impressions on your “climateaudit.org” web site with respect to the Synthetic MSU data sets on the PCMDI website.
1. The data were released publicly on 14 January 2009, at which time our Department of Energy sponsors and NNSA Freedom of Information Act officials were notified. These data were released voluntarily by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and we were never directed to do so as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Furthermore, preparation of the datasets and documentation for them began before your FOIA request was received by us.
Taking Bader’s statements at face value, Santer should obviously have informed me of these plans when I originally requested the data in October 2008. Instead, as reported at CA here, Santer not only made no mention of Livermore’s data release plans, instead repudiating my request in extremely rude terms, broadcasting his refusal to 16 climate scientists around the world, most of whom were not employees of Lawrence Livermore or the US Department of Energy, the operator of Lawrence Livermore.
I am copying this email to all co-authors of the 2008 Santer et al. IJoC paper, as well as to Professor Glenn McGregor at IJoC.
I gather that you have appointed yourself as an independent arbiter of the appropriate use of statistical tools in climate research. Rather that “auditing” our paper, you should be directing your attention to the 2007 IJoC paper published by David Douglass et al., which contains an egregious statistical error.
Please do not communicate with me in the future.
Other contemporary Santer emails are in the Climategate Letters and contain a variety of inappropriate allegations and language. After Santer’s refusal, I sent FOI requests to NOAA (the home of several coauthors) and DOE.
Lucia reported on these events in a contemporary post here, drawing the conclusion that it was “Santer’s intransigence” that resulted in any unnecessary paper work – not the FOI requests. Lucia:
Taken at face value, this means that Santer’s intransigence resulted in a lot of unnecessary paper work for SteveM, FOI officials and Bader. Right? Too bad Santer didn’t just hand over the data in the first place, right?
Nature’s claim that US scientists have been inconvenienced by “endless time-consuming demands for information” under FOI is totally untrue. As noted above, during the five years from 2005 to 2009, there were only three FOI requests in the US involving me (or, to my knowledge, CA readers). In two of the three cases (IPCC, Santer), archiving the requested data was either endorsed by “community” climate scientists or had been planned all along or both. In both these cases, the FOI requests were turned down (but became moot before an appeal was necessary because of institutional recognition of the desirability of archiving the data.) In the third case (the request to NOAA for Jones et al 1990 data), NOAA did not even acknowledge the FOI request, which was moot by the time that it had responded; in any event, the data consisted only of station lists and did not inconvenience NOAA scientists.
The claim by Nature and various climate scientists that U.Sclimate-change researchers had been subjected to “endless time-consuming demands for information” under U.S. Freedom of Information requests is unsupported by the record – something that could have been easily determined had Nature carried out any due diligence, instead of relying on gossip.
Update: NOAA FOI requests for 2007 are tabulated at http://www.governmentattic.org/2docs/FOIA_Logs_NOAA_FY2006-07.pdf (h/t reader RS Brown).