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UEA Scientists ‘Breached Data Laws’

January 28, 2010

The Information Commissioner’s Office found that a university unit involved in a controversy over stolen e-mails on climate research breached rules by withholding data, BBC News reported.

Messages hacked in November showed that requests under the Freedom of Information Act were “not dealt with as they should have been,” officials said.

However, experts say too much time has passed for action against the University of East Anglia, but the UEA says part of a probe into the case will consider the way requests by climate change skeptics were handled.

Academics have denied claims that the stolen material showed science had been manipulated, but the leaked files include documents, detailed data and private e-mails exchanged between leading climate scientists.

The researchers are standing behind the data and insist that the emails had been taken “completely out of context,” according to Professor Phil Jones, who has stood down as director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) while the review takes place.

Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith said in a statement that it was an offense under section 77 of the Freedom of Information act “to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information”.

“The requests were made by a climate change skeptic in the 2007-2008 period and as the case was more than six months old the opportunity to consider a prosecution was long gone” under existing legislation,” he said.

The ICO was gathering evidence from this and other time-barred cases to support the case for a change in the law, according to Smith.

“We will be advising the university about the importance of effective records management and their legal obligations in respect of future requests for information,” he said.

Norfolk Police have launched an inquiry into the case while former civil servant Sir Muir Russell is heading an independent review to examine whether there is evidence that data was manipulated or suppressed in a way which was “at odds with acceptable scientific practice.”

Lord Lawson, the former chancellor, has called for the CRU inquiry to be conducted in public wherever possible.

The terms of reference also need to be broadened to cover the external impact of the e-mails, according to Lord Lawson, who is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation think tank.

Lawson wrote a letter to Sir Muir in which he referred to e-mails that are alleged to show scientists from UEA conspiring against other scientists.

Lord Lawson wrote: “As well as taking evidence from those in CRU who wish to clear their names, you should go outside CRU and take evidence from those who feel they or their work have been improperly treated.”

He said the damage to the public interest could be just as much from what was suppressed as from what was incorrectly published.

The inquiry would also explore how freedom of information requests had been acted on, according to the UEA.

The university responded: “The way freedom of information requests have been handled is one of the main areas being explored by Sir Muir Russell’s independent review. The findings will be made public and we will act as appropriate on its recommendations.”

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