Paul Nurse on Climate Science FOI: A Palpable Arrogance

Source:  Bishop Hill

The Guardian has one of those articles with no comments thread, usually a sure sign that they have written something…disputable. The subject is an interview they have done with Sir Paul Nurse about FOI and scientific research. You can probably guess the contents.

Freedom of information laws are being misused to harass scientists and should be re-examined by the government, according to the president of the Royal Society.

Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse told the Guardian that some climate scientists were being targeted by organised campaigns of requests for data and other research materials, aimed at intimidating them and slowing down research. He said the behaviour was turning freedom of information laws into a way to intimidate some scientists.

Why does he keep repeating things that are so readily shown to be false? Shall we go through this again?

  • the Deputy Information Commissioner told Parliament that the number of FOI requests made to UEA was not high
  • UEA could have refused burdensome requests on cost grounds (as they had done in the past)
  • UEA answered all the 50-odd requests by pointing requesters to the same web page. The whole process could have taken them no longer than an hour.

Some of what Nurse says is seriously, seriously wrongheaded. Take this for example:

I have been told of some researchers who are getting lots of requests for, among other things, all drafts of scientific papers prior to their publication in journals, with annotations, explaining why changes were made between successive versions. If it is true, it will consume a huge amount of time. And it’s intimidating.

Shall we read the legislation?

12 Exemption where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit.

(1) Section 1(1) does not oblige a public authority to comply with a request for information if the authority estimates that the cost of complying with the request would exceed the appropriate limit.

Or how about this one…?

14 Vexatious or repeated requests.

(1) Section 1(1) does not oblige a public authority to comply with a request for information if the request is vexatious.

Why does he keep saying things that can so readily be shown to be false? Why? This is the president of the Royal Society, the living embodiment of British science. Why would this man want to keep scientific data locked away? Why would he actually be in favour of the idea that nobody should be able to replicate scientific papers?

It’s rather as if the science has taken a leave of absence from the Royal Society and only the scientists remain.

Update on May 26, 2011 by Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Steve M has picked up the story here and has written to Sir Paul asking for background on some of his more outlandish claims.