Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Thoughts on 'Climategate'

I don’t suppose I’m the first person to have lost sleep over climate change but it’s certainly keeping me awake at the moment – well, not climate change itself but the media coverage of it. I’m not sure what the strict definition of a media feeding frenzy is but I reckon we’re definitely in one. When the Guardian actually designs a logo for its coverage, labels it 'Climate Wars' and puts their top investigative reporters on the story, you know it's serious. Of course it’s serious for the SMC because this is absolutely what we are here for; set up after similar media furores over MMR and GM crops, it falls to us to ensure that scientists never again fail to engage effectively when a huge science story becomes headline news - no pressure then!

There has been frenetic activity at the Centre - luckily the media come to us a lot so the basic stuff about making sure that climate researchers are being heard has been relatively easy - and this week the bids came in thick and fast with Newsnight, Channel 4 News and the Today programme needing lots of different voices and print journalists needing both opinion pieces and reactive sound-bites. I even ended up being asked for my view from the Guardian for their 'round-table' discussion.

But the pro-active stuff has been more challenging. How can we seize the agenda back from the focus on the errors and flaws to an emphasis on the huge body of quality science that UK climate researchers have delivered to the world? Should we even try? Maybe this is the opportunity that scientists have been waiting for to better communicate the uncertainties and complexities that they complain get edited out by a media only ever excited by the 'tipping points', 'count downs' and 'points of no return'.

After much debate and discussion with other press officers we decided to run a briefing with three of the most prominent climate researchers in the UK – Julia Slingo from the Met Office, Alan Thorpe, head of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and Brian Hoskins, head of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. The ambitions for the briefing were pretty modest, and we were certainly not desperate to generate more column inches. But we did feel that the time had come to inject a simple and sober audit of the science into the frenzy, and give science journalists the opportunity to question three of the UK’s top climate researchers. And that’s exactly what the panel did. In possibly the clearest and most compelling summary I have ever heard, the experts told a room packed full of science reporters what we do know and how we know it, and what is much more uncertain, immature and up for debate. The panellists also talked about how this science is done, the kinds of peer review process at work, the way research is selected for funding and the myriad ways in which the goal of quality is achieved. After a week in which poor quality science, flaws in peer review and errors have loomed large, I personally was entirely convinced by their message that we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

And the scientists also departed from the science itself to make a number of concessions: to admit that they have not been good enough at communicating the uncertainties to the wider public, to admit that they have been slow to share the data with the outside world and to admit that maybe refusing to debate with hard core sceptics may have actually contributed to increasing scepticism in the wider public.

So far so good. Then question time started. Unsurprisingly the questions were not about the science but about what the scientists would say about the revelations in the University of East Anglia emails, the future position of Rajendra Pachauri as the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the imminent collapse of public trust in science. The scientists explained that they were unable to answer any questions on the UEA emails until the result of the pending inquiry, and refused to call for Pachauri's head. That did not go down well with the journalists, who were not at all shy to let the scientists know that these questions need to be answered. One journalist announced that he had 'naively' attended the briefing to hear a robust fightback and was staggered to get what he regarded as a limp repetition of the science. Citing comments on Fred Pearce's online Guardian coverage as his evidence, he claimed that the public are fast turning against climate change and that repeating the science would do little to help 'win' the battle for public opinion.

The scientists reaction was anything but limp – they stood their ground firmly, robustly defended their right to stick to the science of this debate and insisted that their primary responsibility is to do top quality research to answer the remaining questions in a rigorous and scientific way, and then to communicate that science to the public and policy makers. As the briefing ended almost all the journalists I spoke to were busily concluding that while the scientists did a great job on the science, the rest of the performance was 'not enough to win the battle against public opposition'. But the idea that research scientists have to wage some major battle for public opinion and start putting on winning performances is crazy. The world needs climate scientists to do top quality climate research to answer the questions we still need to answer. They then do need to go further - they need to communicate and convey that research to the media and the public - just as those three scientists did so beautifully on that panel. But they are not obliged to go beyond that to become campaigners who must answer questions outside their science in order to win a campaign.

The Science Media Centre and the scientific community have a huge responsibility in this national debate on climate change. And that responsibility is to ensure that the debate is informed by the best science available. That did not happen in the initial GM debate and the results were a wholesale public rejection of the technology. There are things for which scientists deserve to be criticised in this whole mess, but not for turning up to brief journalists in the middle of a massive feeding frenzy and sticking to the science. And I for one got a great night's sleep that night!