LONDON — An independent report into the leak of hundreds of e-mails from one of the world's leading climate research centers on Wednesday largely vindicated the scientists involved, saying they acted honestly and that their research was reliable.
But the panel of inquiry, led by former U.K. civil servant Muir Russell, did chide scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit for failing to share their data with critics.
"We find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt," Russell said. "But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness."
Russell's inquiry is the third major U.K. investigation into the theft and dissemination of more than 1,000 e-mails taken from a back-up server at the university.
They caused a sensation when they were published online in November. The stolen correspondence captured researchers speaking in scathing terms about their critics, discussing ways to stonewall skeptics of man-made climate change, and talking about how to freeze opponents out of peer-reviewed journals.
Beyond specific allegations of scientific misconduct, the furor over the e-mails fed the notion that, at worse, a closed community of climate scientists was systematically exaggerating the threat of climate change, or at least giving skeptics' arguments the collective cold shoulder.
The scandal destabilized the U.N. climate change conference at Copenhagen and led to the temporary resignation of Climatic Research Unit director Phil Jones, who stepped down as Russell was brought in to investigate.
The carefully worded report mostly defended the scientists from attacks, saying there was no evidence Jones had destroyed evidence that he knew critics were seeking, or that he or others perverted the peer review process.
It also largely excused the intemperate language that helped make the e-mails such an Internet sensation, saying that the more extreme exchanges – such as when one scientist cheers the death of a skeptic and another jokingly threatened to beat a prominent critic – were typical of often over-the-top electronic missives friends and colleagues trade every day.
But the report did dole out some criticism, saying that Jones clearly pushed others to delete e-mails that he thought might provide ammunition to skeptics, and that the University of East Anglia had been "unhelpful" in dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests – an issue Britain's data-protection watchdog has also flagged.
Importantly, the report also revisited the now infamous e-mail exchange between Jones and a colleague in which the climatologist refers to a "trick" used to "hide the decline" in a chart used to track global temperatures.
The chart, which shows an alarming temperature spike at the end of the last millennium, became a powerful visual tool in the campaign to control greenhouse gas emissions, gracing the front cover of the World Meteorological Organization's 1999 report on climate change. Russell said the chart was misleading because it wasn't explicit enough about the way in which the underlying data had been spliced together.
Jones' critics were only partially mollified. Canadian economics professor Ross McKitrick welcomed the conclusion that the 1999 chart was misleading. But he still said that the inquiry seemed "unduly concerned to downplay the problems they found" and offer excuses for the researchers involved.
University of East Anglia Vice-Chancellor Edward Acton claimed that the report had "completely exonerated" Jones, who is returning to the Climatic Research Unit as director of research.
But Benny Feiser, who runs the skeptic-leaning Global Warming Policy Foundation, said there was strong evidence that legitimate requests for information had been repeatedly stifled.
"I don't think the university can just claim that this is a vindication," he said. He promised his own inquiry into the matter, to publish its report in August.
There have already been two major British reports on the e-mail leak and its aftermath. A British parliamentary inquiry largely backed the scientists involved, while another independent investigation, which like Russell's report was commissioned by the University of East Anglia, gave a clean bill of health to the science itself.
A flood of other investigations have also dealt with various aspects of the issue over the past nine months. Two U.S. university reviews of Penn State University professor Michael Mann – a prominent player in the controversy – have cleared him of wrongdoing. Other organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, have also conducted their own investigations.
An AP review of the e-mails, published in December, said they didn't support claims that the science of global warming was being faked.