The Guardian’s story on Oxburgh’s testimony (James Randerson here) is headlined:
Oxburgh: UEA vice-chancellor was wrong to tell MPs he would investigate climate research
Edward Acton gave ‘inaccurate’ information to MPs by telling them the university would reassess key scientific papers following the UEA climate emails controversy.
And indeed, this is one of the few statements by Oxburgh to the Committee that can be taken at face value. Oxburgh’s evidence did shed some interesting new light on both Acton’s and oral evidence to the Committee earlier this year.
Summer Controversy over Terms of Reference
Controversy over the Oxburgh terms of reference has been festering for a while. It was discussed in July, with articles by both me and Roger Harrabin (among others) and a statement by the university.
I had written to Oxburgh in June asking him whether my information that Jones had admitted at an interview that it was “probably impossible” to do the reconstructions with any accuracy was true and to issue an addendum to his report if this was the case – since this was perhaps the most contentious scientific point. Oxburgh refused to confirm or deny this point. (The question was touched on again in Oxburgh’s testimony, but he evaded the question – more on this in another post.) In his reply, Oxburgh refused to confirm or deny Jones’ admission on the grounds that “science was not the subject of the study”.
This prompted me to write a CA post itemizing the representations by the university when the formation of the Science Appraisal Panel was first bruited in early February, their written evidence in late February and oral evidence on March 1 – see here for a chronology.
Concurrently, Roger Harrabin of the BBC, a long-time and sincere environmental reporter, was getting very frustrated as a reporter with the inconsistencies between what the university had represented to the public and to the committee and what they were actually doing, presenting quite acid commentary at his blog here and in a broadcast here on July 7, with a tough quote from Phil Willis, former chair of the committee accusing the university of “sleight of hand”:
Quite frankly I couldn’t believe it. I frankly think that there was a sleight of hand in that the terms of reference were not what we were led to believe.
The University issued its own joint statement with Oxburgh on July 11 here, denying that the terms of reference had changed. Here, as always, you have to watch the pea under the thimble.
University of East Anglia did not change the brief of the Oxburgh Panel Sun, 11 Jul 2010
Following a broadcast on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 on July 7, 2010, and text on Roger Harrabin’s blogsite on the BBC webpages, the following has been sent to Mr Harrabin by Lord Oxburgh and Professor Trevor Davies.
“The University asked the Panel chaired by Lord Oxburgh to consider whether “data had been dishonestly selected, manipulated and/or presented to arrive at pre-determined conclusions that were not compatible with a fair interpretation of the original data”. It is not true that Professor Davies subsequently asked Lord Oxburgh , as you claim, to adopt a “narrower…brief” of any kind. We shall be grateful if you would correct the wrong impression which has been given”
Watch the pea under the thimble here. The criticisms from Harrabin and myself had been that the terms of reference had been misrepresented to the public and to the committee – not whether they had “changed” between the time that Oxburgh had been appointed and his submission of the report.
I had a chat with Trevor Davies at the Guardian reception the following week. Davies accosted me in front of a young reporter from New Scientist, saying that I held myself out as expecting accuracy and demanding that I retract supposedly inaccurate statements at Climate Audit about changes in terms of reference. I asked him to identify the supposedly offending statements and undertook to correct any inaccuracies. On July 15, Davies’ secretary sent me an email attaching an email – I guess the great man was not himself going to email me:
Please see the attached from Professor Trevor Davies:
Below is the agreed statement from Lord Oxburgh and me, which was sent to Roger Harrabin of the BBC. It is now on the UEA website. On Wednesday night you indicated that you would be prepared to correct/remove any erroneous information on the Climate Audit site. I’d be pleased if you would do so with regard to this matter.
[the above statement was included]
I reverted with a detailed answer, saying that I had been unable to locate any “erroneous information”. I pointed out that the issue was the inconsistency between the evidence to the public and to the committee and the actual terms of reference, not whether the terms of reference had been “changed” between the time of appointment and the final report. I sent a follow-up but didn’t hear back from them on either email.
Throughout all of this, I had assumed that the terms of reference with Oxburgh had been established after Acton’s evidence to the committee i.e. I made the generous assumption that Acton’s evidence was accurate at the time that he gave it and that, for whatever reason, the terms of reference finally agreed to with Oxburgh did not live up to the representations. Frustrating, but not the same thing as giving “inaccurate” evidence to a parliamentary committee.
Quite frankly, I hadn’t even contemplated the possibility that Acton’s evidence to the committee about the terms of reference had been “inaccurate” at the time that he gave it i.e. that the terms of reference had been agreed to with Oxburgh prior to Acton’s evidence on March 1.
Oxburgh shed a great deal of light on this, both through his direct statement that Acton’s evidence was “inaccurate” and some interesting evidence on the chronology of his appointment. Here’s an approximate transcript of the relevant section of Oxburgh’s evidence yesterday. In his opening paragraph, Oxburgh said that he was “approached in February”:
I was approached in February, would I chair a very brief study on the honesty of the people, not expected to go into emails.
Later, he went into more detail about this initial approach, which seems to have been a visit to his house in Cambridge by two senior UEA officials, at which the terms of reference were hammered out. Whether this visit was the “approach in February” or whether it had been preceded by earlier feelers doesn’t seem material at this time. I place this visit between Feb 11 and Feb 25, the significance of which dates I’ll explain below. Here is Oxburgh’s evidence on the terms of reference and the Cambridge visit:
Stringer – you said that your inquiry about integrity and honesty.
Ox – As far as we could
Stringer – When Prof Acton before the previous committee, he said that your panel was to reassess the science and make sure there is nothing wrong –that’s a direct quote. What you say is very different..,
Ox – That was inaccurate. I think that the scope of our panel was made quite clear in the university’s press release at the time we were appointed and in the first paragraphs of our report. You’ll have to bear in mind the vice chancellor in his post for a month or something like that. laugh I think that this all came as rather a abrupt [unintelligible] in his first months as VC.
Q -Can I come back to this. People are saying that the terms of reference changed
Ox – Terms of reference have not changed.
Q – That’s what they’re claiming. UEA press notice did so it would be an independent and external reappraisal of the science . Now you’re clear that you didn’t see it that way. Can we just why to get to the bottom as to why there’s a slight difference between what the press release said and what you’re saying?
Ox – I can’t comment on other people saying things. Let me tell you. I was visited in Cambridge by the Deputy VC and a senior member of the university who wanted to persuade me to take this on. This had to be done rapidly. They really wanted it within a month. There would be no way that panel could validate the science. If you wanted to validate the science, you would have a different panel. You wouldn’t appoint me as chairman. You’d appoint experts from the field. It’s a very different activity. I was quite clear that what we took on was to look at the integrity of the researchers.
10-48 Q – Who set terms of reference, yourself, Royal Society or uni?
Ox- In subsequent discussions, it was made a much more formal process than what happened, the terms of reference emerged at discussions in my house in Cambridge, the university explained what they wanted, they’re encapsulated in 1st paragraph of our report and I don’t think that there’s any disagreement between me, our committee and university.
There seems little doubt that as at Feb 10-11, the date of the Muir Russell press conference and the date of their written submission to the committee, the university’s intention and representations were to “reappraise the science”. That’s what their contemporary statement said.
It also seems certain that Oxburgh hadn’t been approached as at Feb 10. On Feb 10, Trevor Davies emailed UK Chief Scientist John Beddington (Andrew Montford has been attentive to his shadowy role in these events) as follows:
Muir Russell is launching the Independent Review tomorrow. Our understanding is that he will state definitively that he will not be reviewing the ‘science’. Given the time which has elapsed since we instigated the Review (Dec 3) and other events, we are of the view that there should be as rapid as possible scientific assessment of key CRU publications. There has been discussion between the Royal Soc (Martin Rees, Brian Hoskins), UEA (me, Peter Liss) and Alan Thorpe [NERC]. Initially we were hoping that the Royal Soc would undertake this, but Martin feels it more appropriate that the Soc helps us identify people with the appropriate standing, independence etc. We plan on issuing a statement to this effect tomorrow, Muir Russell has agreed.
It is difficult to say anything about the time-scale until the assessors have been appointed but we want this to be done as quickly as possible. Will keep you in the loop and seek your advice.
Beddington replied the next day:
Trevor, thanks for this. I am currently in India, back next week and there may be merit in speaking on the telephone when I retyrn. I think that it is important that UEA indicates that this decision relates to the science and is complementary to Muir Russell. It will be very important to have a Chair for such a review who would be seen as independent. I will ponder this, the choice of experts is rather more straightforward.
Best wishes, John
Beddington then suggested Oxburgh as one of two candidates (per March 4 email from Davies to Beddington and May DEFRA statement in response to Montford FOI request).
Oxburgh is attested in a Feb 27 email from Davies to Rees and Hoskins, saying that Davies and Oxburgh had settled on a list of 13 “possible canadidates”. The Cambridge visit is thus firmly bracketed between Feb 11 and Feb 27.
Acton’s oral evidence to the committee was on March 1 after the Cambridge visit establishing the terms of reference. At the time of Acton’s testimony, Oxburgh had already refused to “reappraise” the science, agreeing only to the very limited appraisal of the “honesty” of the scientists in selected publications (more on this). At the time of Acton’s evidence to the committee, it had already been agreed that Oxburgh would not reappraise the science and Acton’s opposite testimony was, as Oxburgh stated, “inaccurate”. (Beddington also testified to the committee and his evidence is worth examining as well.)
As to Oxburgh’s excuse for Acton’s “inaccurate” evidence to the committee – that Acton had been in his post as Vice Chancellor much longer than a “month or so”. Not a very convincing excuse even for the University of East Anglia.
However, even this excuse is untrue. Acton’s appointment as VC had been announced in April 2009, about 11 months before his evidence to the committee. And prior to that he had been acting VC for a number of months, following over five years experience as pro-vice-chancellor. His press release had stated:
Professor Acton has been acting in the role of vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia following the announcement of Professor Macmillan’s retirement, earlier this year. He had been the University’s pro-vice-chancellor for academic matters since 2004 where he provided leadership in areas including quality assurance, student satisfaction and student recruitment.
More on other aspects of Oxburgh’s evidence to come.