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expert reaction to claims climate research was ‘suppressed’

The Times reported that Professor Lennart Bengtsson, a research fellow at the University of Reading, believed his climate change paper had been rejected from the journal Environmental Research Letters due to “intolerance of dissenting views on climate science.”

 

Professor Lennart Bengtsson, professorial research fellow at the University of Reading, said:

“I do not believe there is any systematic “cover up” of scientific evidence on climate change or that academics’ work is being “deliberately suppressed”, as The Times front page suggests. I am worried by a wider trend that science is being gradually being influenced by political views. Policy decisions need to be based on solid fact.

“I was concerned that the Environmental Research Letters reviewer’s comments suggested his or her opinion was not objective or based on an unbiased assessment of the scientific evidence. Science relies on having a transparent and robust peer review system so I welcome the Institute of Physics publishing the reviewers’ comments in full. I accept that Environmental Research Letters is entitled to its final decision not to publish this paper – that is part and parcel of academic life. The peer review process is imperfect but it is still the best way to assess academic work.

“I was surprised by the strong reaction from some scientists outside the UK to joining the Global Warming Policy Foundation this month. I had hoped that it would be platform to bring more common sense into the global climate debate.

“Academic freedom is a central aspect to life at University of Reading. It is a very open, positive and supportive environment to work in. I have always felt able to put forward my arguments and opinions without any prejudice.”

 

Prof Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London, said:

“The publishers of the journal concerned, IOP, express astonishment that the story of this rejected manuscript made front-page news.  Of course it’s perfectly normal for scientific papers to be rejected for a whole variety of good reasons.  But the reason it made front-page news in this case was because of the previous pressure brought to bear on Professor Bengtsson, from a variety of quarters including from other climate scientists, which made him resign his position as an academic advisor to the GWPF think-tank.  This is the real story here: why certain climate scientists believe it’s their role to pass public judgement on whether a scientific colleague should offer advice to political, public or a campaigning organisations and to harass that scientist until they ‘fall into line’. 

“This episode tells us a lot about how deeply politicised climate science has become, but how some scientists remain blind to their own biases.”

  

Dr Simon Lewis, Reader in Global Change Science at University College London, said:

“The rejection of a scientific paper becoming front page news is a surprise.  Scientific papers get rejected all the time. In top journals nine in ten papers get rejected; there is nothing unusual about it.  Decisions about publication are made by editors, not reviewers, so it is entirely wrong to selectively quote from reviewer comments alone.

“What counts are the reasons the editor gave for rejection.  They were because the paper contained important errors and didn’t add enough that was new to warrant publication.  Indeed, looking at all the comments by the reviewer they suggested how the paper might be rewritten in the future to make it a solid contribution to science.  That’s not suppressing a dissenting view, it’s what scientists call peer review.*

“I suspect that the rejection of a scientific paper hitting the news is simply because Professor Bengtsson has strong links to campaigners at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.”

* Paragraph updated following the release of the referee’s report. The original paragraph read:

“What counts are the reasons the editor gave for rejection.  I haven’t seen those in media reports. Editors weight all the comments from reviewers, not just a single comment, usually discounting those that are off-topic.  Transparency requires that both sets of reviewers’ comments and the editor’s decision letter be made public, then an informed decision about the reasons why Professor Bengtsson’s paper was rejected can be made.”

 

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

“The full referee’s report that has been released by the journal shows that Professor Bengtsson’s paper was rejected because it was not good enough.  While it did include an inappropriate comment about the perceived impact of the paper on media coverage, this was just a single phrase in the referee’s detailed and constructively critical review, which pointed out the technical limitations of the paper. It is clear that the recommendation to reject was based on the poor quality of the paper.

“It is not a surprise that Professor Bengtsson is upset about the rejection, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the decision was based on concerns about the paper’s impact on the media.  Most researchers who receive such feedback respond by improving a paper and re-submitting it for publication.  But it appears that Professor Bengtsson has decided instead to allow himself to be used as a pawn in the disinformation campaign by climate change ‘sceptics’.”

Updated from a previous comment following the release of the referee’s report:

“In the interests of transparency and informed debate, Professor Bengtsson’s paper should be made public along with reports from the referees and editor. Only this will prove that his paper was rejected by the journal for sound scientific reasons rather than politics. The peer review process is always susceptible to inappropriate comments from referees, but it is up to editors to ensure the integrity of the process.”

 

Prof Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said:

“Professor Lennart Bengtsson’s resignation from the GWPF Academic Advisory Council has received wide coverage and raises important issues.

“Whatever anyone’s views are on the role, motivation and integrity of the GWPF in this matter, it is up to individual academics whether or not to associate themselves with it.

“It is regrettable that perceived political stances on the climate issue are apparently so affecting academic activity.  The Grantham Institute at Imperial has always opposed such behaviour, believing that scientific progress requires an open society.  We try to engage with a wide range of figures, some with radically different views on climate change.”

“The outcome in this case is probably a reflection of the ‘us and them’ that has permeated the climate science debate for decades and which is in part an outcome of – and reaction to – external pressure on the climate community. 

“This episode should not distract us from the fact that we are performing a very dangerous experiment with the Earth’s climate.  Even by the end of this century, on current trends we risk changes of a magnitude that are unprecedented in the last 10,000 years.  How we respond to that is a matter of public policy but scientists clearly play a key role in providing policymakers with the evidence they require.”

 

Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, said:

“As scientists we rely on peer review to ensure that the very best science is published.  You can’t cry foul and run to the media when you manuscript is turned down – however famous you are.

“In this case the independent reviewers suggested there were flaws in the science – and, even more damning, that it was not original.  The reviewers were right: publishing bad science does not advance the science or the policy relevant discussions at all.

“On the question of climate sensitivity to doubling carbon dioxide, there are already many excellent papers published which give a huge range from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C.  So even if this flawed paper been published it would have said nothing new or original.”

  

Prof Tim Palmer, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford, said:

“No self-respecting scientist would reject a paper on the grounds that it might fuel climate scepticism.  However, according to the journal, the paper contained errors and did not sufficiently advance the science.”

 

Prof Myles Allen, Head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, said:

“Whether there is a story here at all depends on whether you read ‘unhelpful’ and ‘harmful’ in the quotes I have seen as meaning ‘harmful to our collective understanding of the climate system’ or ‘harmful to the case for a particular climate policy’.

“If the reviewer meant the first, then there is nothing wrong with them saying so.  Part of the job of a reviewer is to point out statements in a paper that are liable to cause misunderstanding.  The problem is that journalists can now spin this as meaning the second. 

“The real tragedy here is that climate scientists are now expected to check their comments in an anonymous peer review to ask themselves how they might ‘play’ if repeated in the Times or the Mail.  The progress of science since Galileo has depended on the principle that an anonymous graduate student can point out errors in a paper by a Nobel laureate confident that their comments will be used solely for the purposes of editorial judgement.

“The peer review system has its faults, of course: good papers get rejected, bad papers accepted, and reviewers have their prejudices which editors have to take into account.  But overall, it has served us well, and there is a lot more than climate science at stake if we allow it to be undermined by forcing scientists to consult their lawyers before recommending that a paper is rejected.”

 

 

Declared interests

Myles Allen is on the Editorial Board of Environmental Research Letters but played no part in the review of or editorial decisions on the Bengtsson paper.  He states: “I wasn’t even aware of it until yesterday, and still haven’t seen the paper — nor do I wish to see it, since rejected papers are meant to be kept confidential.”

Bob Ward is a member of the Science Media Centre advisory committee.

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