IPCC and conflict of interest: tapping into the team-work side-step

As I had posted some months ago, during its review of the processes and procedures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the InterAcademy Council (IAC) observed (p. 53):

Questions about potential conflicts of interest, for example, have been raised about [...] the practice of scientists responsible for writing IPCC assessments reviewing their own work. The Committee did not investigate the basis of these claims, which is beyond the mandate of this review. However, the Committee believes that the nature of the IPCC’s task (i.e., in presenting a series of expert judgments on issues of great societal relevance) demands that the IPCC pay special attention to issues of independence and bias to maintain the integrity of, and public confidence in, its results. [emphasis added -hro]

Throughout the IAC’s compilation of 232 (out of 400) responses to the questionnaire on which they based many of their findings, there are 17 instances of “conflict of interest” and 34 of “bias”.

One such comment, as I had previously noted, reads as follows:

In the selection of lead authors, it is critical that publications by a lead author play a minor role in the particular chapter that the author is leading. Otherwise, the assessment will be biased by the lead author‘s own strong opinions related to his/her own papers. This means that the dominant researchers on a particular topic should not be leading the assessment on that particular topic.

It is also worth noting, that AccessIPCC (see here for background and here for a detailed “tutorial”) has a “tag” (or “flag” if you prefer) called SRC {Self Reference Concern Author of a chapter containing references to own work). This particular concern is quite pervasive – as this adaptation from AccessIPCC‘s summary table for the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report (AR4) indicates:

Summary of Self Reference Concerns in AR4
Working Group References Citations
WG I – Physical Science Basis 1708 3302
WG II – Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability 1178 1989
WG III – Mitigation of Climate Change 570 988

However, even without the benefit of AccessIPCC’s quantification of the extent of the problem, the IAC made a strong recommendation (p.53) :

The IPCC should develop and adopt a rigorous conflict-of-interest policy that applies to all individuals directly involved in the preparation of IPCC reports, including senior IPCC leadership (IPCC Chair and Vice Chairs), authors with responsibilities for report content (i.e., Working Group Co-chairs, Coordinating Lead Authors, and Lead Authors), Review Editors, and technical staff directly involved in report preparation (e.g., staff of Technical Support Units and the IPCC Secretariat).

[and the IAC further recommended inter alia:]

In developing such a policy, the IPCC may want to consider features of the NRC policy. These include:

[...]

• Judging the extent to which an author or Review Editor would be reviewing his or her own work, or that of his or her immediate employer

• Examining indications of a fixed position on a particular issue revealed through public statements (e.g., testimony, speeches, interviews), publications (e.g., articles, books), or personal or professional activities

And how did the IPCC respond?! I’m so glad you asked :-) When they first reviewed this particular recommendation, in December, as I had observed, the IPCC’s response had little substance and lots of padding. Here’s the “substance”:

The Panel at its 32nd Session:

I. Agreed with [the] IAC recommendation.

II. Decided to implement a rigorous conflict of interest policy, taking into consideration the specific circumstances related to participation in IPCC activities.

III. Established a Task Group on Conflict of Interest Policy to propose options for such a policy, consulting with relevant organisations, for its decision at the 33rd Session

But let’s take a look at the relevant excerpts from the “decisions taken” on Conflict of Interest at the more recent IPCC meeting (May 10-13):

At its 33rd Session, the Panel:

Adopted the “IPCC Conflict of Interest Policy” as provided in Appendix 1 to this decision;

Extended the mandate of the Task Group on Conflict of Interest Policy in order to develop proposals for Annexes to the Policy covering Implementation and the Disclosure Form with a view to adopting a decision at the IPCC 34th Session;

Decided to work towards early implementation of the Policy [...]

Appendix 1 (which begins on page 2 of the above noted pdf) contains 17 numbered paragraphs in three sections: Purpose (paras. 1-5), Scope of the Policy (paras.6-10) and Conflict of Interest (paras. 11-17). The policy, you’ll be pleased to know, is heavily weighted in favour of “balance” (five instances), and the overall purpose of the policy is [all emphases in excerpts below are mine]:

to protect the legitimacy, integrity, trust, and credibility of the IPCC and of those directly involved in the preparation of reports, and its activities. This policy is principles-based and does not provide an exhaustive list of criteria for the identification of such conflicts.

There are no specific “principles” articulated, so I’m not entirely sure what “principle” they might be invoking when in para. 2 they state:

It is essential that the work of IPCC is not compromised by any conflict of interest for those who execute it.

and two paragraphs later they state:

The individual and the IPCC should not be placed in a situation that could lead a reasonable person to question, and perhaps discount or dismiss, the work of the IPCC simply because of the existence of a conflict of interest.

except perhaps an unstated “principle” that anyone who might question, discount or dismiss their “work” on such grounds is really a damn nuisance!

They seem to have the financial aspect of potential conflicts of interest covered fairly well. And they did take the bold step of declaring that:

17. To prevent situations in which a conflict of interest may arise, individuals directly involved in or leading the preparation of IPCC reports should avoid being in a position to approve, adopt, or accept on behalf of any government the text in which he/she was directly involved

But “balance” and “team” writing seem to be the operating “principles” with which they’ve chosen to, well, side-step the issue of bias and/or conflict of interest inherent in the pervasive problem of “the practice of scientists responsible for writing IPCC assessments reviewing their own work.”:

9. The policy will be executed to reflect the various roles, responsibilities and levels of authority, of participants in the IPCC process. In particular, consideration should be given to whether responsibility is held at an individual level or shared within a team; to the level of influence held over the content of IPCC products.

Well, we certainly know all about “responsibility … shared within a team” and how well that’s worked out. But it was good enough for Muir Russell to find Jones and Briffa not responsible (or accountable) for their actions. His so-called enquiry pursuant to Climategate found:

9.5 Conclusions

40. In summary, we have not found any direct evidence to support the allegation that members of CRU misused their position on IPPC to seek to prevent the publication of opposing ideas.

41. In addition to taking evidence from them and checking the relevant minutes of the IPCC process, we have consulted the relevant IPCC Review Editors. Both Jones and Briffa were part of large groups of scientists taking joint responsibility for the relevant IPCC Working Group texts and were not in a position to determine individually the final wording and content. We find that neither Jones nor Briffa behaved improperly by preventing or seeking to prevent proper consideration of views which conflicted with their own through their roles in the IPCC.

But I digress …

The IPPC’s “principle-based” ounce of prevention [for ease of reading, I've broken this single paragraph into several]:

12. Conflict of interest policies in scientific assessment bodies typically make a distinction between “conflict of interest” and “bias,” which refers to a point of view or perspective that is strongly held regarding a particular issue or set of issues.

In the case of author and review teams, bias can and should be managed through the selection of a balance of perspectives. For example, it is expected that IPCC author teams will include individuals with different perspectives and affiliations. Those involved in selecting authors will need to strive for an author team composition that reflects a balance of expertise and perspectives, such that IPCC products are comprehensive, objective, and neutral with respect to policy.

In selecting these individuals, care must be taken to ensure that biases can be balanced where they exist. In contrast, conflict of interest exists where an individual could secure a direct and material gain through outcomes in an IPCC product. Holding a view that one believes to be correct, but that one does not stand to gain from personally is not a conflict of interest

YMMV, but … apart from wondering whatever happened to:

• Judging the extent to which an author or Review Editor would be reviewing his or her own work, or that of his or her immediate employer

• Examining indications of a fixed position on a particular issue revealed through public statements (e.g., testimony, speeches, interviews), publications (e.g., articles, books), or personal or professional activities

I’m left with the rather distinct impression that we shall see no significant … uh … decline in the number of references and citatations that AccessIPCC will need to flag with SRC (Self Reference Concern Author of a chapter containing references to own work ) in any future reports of the IPCC. I suppose it’s possible that the as yet unwritten Annex A: Implementation and/or Annex B: Conflict of Interest Disclosure Form will prove me wrong … but, for now … colour me skeptical.

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3 thoughts on “IPCC and conflict of interest: tapping into the team-work side-step

  1. Thanks for this Hilary. Unfortunately the majority of people have never heard of the IAC or read its report on the review of IPCC’s processes and procedures. As you know, that review included input from participants in IPCC and documented irrefutable proof not only of bias and a lack of any policy to preclude conflict of interest, but also political interference, lack of transparency, failure to respond to critical review comments, poorly reflecting uncertainty, and use of unpublished and non-peer-reviewed material which had not been critically evaluated. The latter was evidently a polite way of saying that IPCC authors were permitted to cite their own unpublished and non-peer reviewed material. How robust is that?
    The fact that all these problems have been allowed to persist unchecked for over 20 years speaks volumes about the ‘integrity of climate science’ as manifested in IPCC. It is now an uphill battle to convince people that the IPCC’s ‘Assessment Reports’ are neither independent, unbiased nor robust.

    The fact that governments involved in IPCC have been careful to avoid mentioning the IAC Report confirms the impression that the whole saga is a sorry pseudo-scientific pretext for siphoning off more taxes in the form of a carbon tax or ETS. In the case of Australia it has resulted in the Prime Minister resorting to a deliberate, brazen lie viz. “There will be no carbon tax under the Government I lead.” That was the promise made repeatedly in the week before the last election. Now in Government that same individual is hell bent on implementing a carbon tax on us! In the meantime Australia exports ship loads of coal to China to the tune of A$55 billion annually! How is that for the hypocrisy of a government claiming to ‘save the planet from climate change’?

  2. Hilary
    They will not implement the conflicts-of-policy until 2013, if everything goes right that is. The next report is due in 2014.

    What they have presented in the Abu Dhabi meeting is a draft Conflicts with much standard language, but nothing more.

    Pachauri’s running the show, and he feels reforms should not be introduced in a hurry. What’s more, they put off the question of who should be the next chair – in other words, they cannot deal with the living, walking example of conflict-of-interest (apart from the obviously-cooking-by-now examples of academic conflicts that you are highlighting here).

    • I don’t disagree, Shub – except for the fact that [unless my reading of IPCC-speak is mistaken!] this is closer to being written in stone than a mere “draft”, viz the Panel “Adopted the “IPCC Conflict of Interest Policy” as provided in Appendix 1 to this decision” [emphasis mine]

      Also included in this “decision text” is an acknowledgement that some Working Groups (WGs) have formulated their own conflict of interest policy:

      Noting that Working Groups I and II, and the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories (TFI), have implemented, and Working Group III is in the process of designing, interim Conflict of Interest Policies that are broadly consistent with the IPCC Conflict of Interest Policy at Appendix 1, the Panel:
      [...]
      invited the Working Groups and the TFI, in taking forward their activities under the Fifth Assessment cycle, to take note of the Conflict of Interest Policy at Appendix 1 and ensure, as far as possible, that their actions are consistent with the Conflict of Interest Policy at Appendix 1.

      Yet, as Richard Tol observed last January, one outcome of the AR5 WG II Lead Authors Meeting was:

      a decision was made to disclose potential conflicts of interest — but details are given verbally, no preparation time was given, and statements are not checked. Only a summary will be committed to paper.

      Bottom line, from where I’m sitting: regardless of when this policy is actually “implemented”, they’ve paid no heed (other than lip service) to the reasons for – and clear intent of – the IAC’s recommendations. IOW, while we shall undoubtedly see a fair bit of verbiage, the end result will be nothing more than the IPCC blessing on a cover for … business as usual! After all, not unlike Brutus, these ‘experts’ of the IPCC are all “such honourable men” (and women, of course) :-)

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