The Strange Case of Sari Kovats

March 16, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Two weeks ago I blogged about how difficult it was to confirm the date in which Sari Kovats, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), had received her PhD. In the interim, there have been a number of developments.

Readers from three continents wrote to ask if I was certain she actually has a PhD.  There is no mention of her thesis on her academic bio page at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A search of the British Library’s online theses database draws a blank. So does a search of theses at the University of London (with which the School of Hygiene is affiliated) although theses dating back to 1716 are recorded there.

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More than one correspondent speculated that perhaps Kovats had received what is known as a “mercy PhD.” I’d never heard of this before, but apparently some schools eventually abandon all hope that certain students will complete their thesis and award them a doctorate anyway.

I am pleased, therefore, to report that Kovats did, indeed, receive her PhD in June 2010. She sent me a pleasant e-mail to this effect and further consented to the school confirming this information. A week after my previous blog post, I received an official document from her school’s records department.

Unfortunately, that still left the matter of her thesis. Just this morning Kovats advised me that:

The full citation is

Kovats RS (2010) Temperature-related mortality in Delhi and Cape Town. Doctoral Thesis. University of London.

It is an epidemiological analysis of routine mortality data from the two cities.

Why no record of it appears in any of the relevant places eight months later remains uncertain, but all of the above has now raised some new concerns.

According to the document the school produced, Kovats was born in 1969 and became a part-time doctoral student in 2001. In an e-mail to her I mentioned that the public record indicates her first paper was published in 1997. She did not dispute this.

In 1994, Kovats was one of only 21 people in the entire world selected to work on the first IPCC chapter that examined how climate change might affect human health. She was 25 years old. Her first academic paper wouldn’t be published for another three years. It would be six years before she’d even begin her doctoral studies and 16 years before she’d graduate.

IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri says this about how IPCC authors are selected:

There is a very careful process of selection…These are people who have been chosen on the basis of their track record, on their record of publications, on the research that they have done…They are people who are at the top of their profession as far as research is concerned in a particular aspect of climate change…you can’t think of a better set of qualified people than what we have in the IPCC.  [bold added]

Academically speaking, Kovats was invisible back in 1994. That anyone connected to the IPCC could have considered her a scientific expert is astonishing.

I’m sorry to say that that was just the beginning. When it came time to write the next version of the climate bible, Kovats received a promotion. She was selected to be a lead author, again for the health chapter – despite the fact that her doctoral studies wouldn’t begin until the year the IPCC report was published.

What do we suppose happened with the next edition of the climate bible – the one that appeared in 2007, still three full years before Kovats earned her doctorate? Was she selected once again to be a health chapter lead author? You betcha.

But by then the IPCC, in its wisdom, had decided she was a scientific expert in other areas, as well. Kovats served as a contributing author for three additional chapters in Working Group 2: 

  • Chapter 1 – Assessment of Observed Changes and Responses in Natural and Managed Systems
  • Chapter 6 – Coastal Systems and Low-lying Areas
  • Chapter 12 – Europe

She was also an IPCC expert reviewer.

There’s no mystery as to why it took Kovats a decade to write her thesis. She’s had the equivalent of a full-time job just writing IPCC reports. As it turns out, the main assessments aren’t the only documents with which she has been involved.

The IPCC finds Kovats so enchanting it recruited her as an author for one of its smaller reports, published in 2008, about climate change and water. Soon after that, she was one of only eight members of the “core writing team” for a 2009 Good Practice Guidance Paper. The executive summary of that paper begins:

The reliable detection and attribution of changes in climate, and their effects, is fundamental to our understanding of the scientific basis of climate change…This paper…is intended as a guide for future IPCC Lead Authors. [bold added]

We’re told the IPCC is a serious and rigorous body. We’re told its reports are the gold-standard and that it is comprised of the world’s top experts. We’re told we should trust the IPCC’s conclusions because of these facts. And then we discover that a woman who still hadn’t earned her own doctorate was recruited by the IPCC to write guidelines for other authors.

(In true IPCC tradition, a majority – 8 of 15 – of the papers appearing in the bibliography of the guidance paper were written by none other than the authors of the guidance themselves. But never mind.)

June 2010 was a memorable month for Kovats. Not only did she finally complete her PhD, but the IPCC announced the authors of the forthcoming version of the climate bible, expected in 2013. Quelle surprise, Kovats has received another promotion. This time she isn’t merely a lead author, she’s a coordinating lead author – the most senior of IPCC author roles. (see page 17 of this 27-page PDF).

Her thesis, remember, dealt with mortality data in India and South Africa. Yet the IPCC has decided she’s qualified to lead a chapter whose focus is Europe.

So how could all of the above possibly have happened?

In truth, a lack of professionalism appears to be evident on a number of fronts. In the year 2000, when Kovats was 31 years old and had yet to even begin her doctoral studies, she was somehow considered qualified to be the chief editor of a World Health Organization publication on climate change and ozone depletion.

According to IPCC regulations, in order for her to be selected as a lead author she first had to be nominated by her own government. This means that, on at least three separate occasions, UK officials decided that someone who had yet to earn her doctorate was a world-class expert suitable for IPCC duty.

In February 2010, Kovats spoke at a conference in Bangladesh. A document from that event thrice refers to her as Dr. Kovats even though she didn’t earn this title until four months later. While this was no doubt an innocent mistake on the part of the conference organizers, Kovats is also described as a “Senior Lecturer in Environmental Epidemiology.”

How does one land that sort of position (and, presumably, that sort of salary) prior to finishing their PhD?

One of the reasons it’s taking me so long to complete my book on the IPCC is because every time I think I’m doing some basic fact-checking I end up stumbling over something unsavoury. This is absolutely the case here. Two weeks ago, all I wanted to know was what month and year Kovats had received her PhD.

Since then, a picture that already seemed murky has become even more clouded. Kovats has had her PhD for less than one calendar year. Yet she has already filled numerous IPCC roles, is a senior lecturer at an institution of higher learning, is chairperson of her school’s Centre on Global Change and Health, and is a member of the steering committee of a health and climate change project funded by the United Nations.

We’re told the IPCC is comprised of top scientists. In the case of Kovats, it appears that it was actually her IPCC participation that convinced the wider community that she’s an expert. This is totally improper. It represents a complete inversion of how things are supposed to work.

So when are Kovats, the IPCC, and the British government all going to admit that she is far from being a world-class scientific expert?

Will she resign her position as coordinating lead author – or will the new edition of the climate bible be irretrievably tainted by her participation?

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many thanks to, among others: Mark Plant, Bernard Williams, and chris y from florida

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Entry filed under: climate bible, IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri. Tags: , , , , .

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