This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
UPDATE: Since this post was published in Jan. 2011, it has become clear that no individual associated with the IPCC can correctly be described as a Nobel laureate. The IPCC acknowledges this in a 2012 statement. The title of this blog post was altered in Oct. 2018.
IPCC insiders say many of those who shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize have weak scientific credentials. They were chosen because they are of the right gender or come from the right country.
Earlier this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suffered another self-inflicted wound.
An Argentina-based activist group called the Universal Ecological Fund released a report predicting improbably rapid climate change. The media, taking the accompanying press release at face value, told us the report had the blessing of “Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist Osvaldo Canziani.”
An Argentinian meteorologist, Canziani was one of two co-chairs for the Working Group 2 section of the 2007 IPCC report. When the IPCC was awarded the 2007 Peace Prize (along with Al Gore) for helping raise awareness about global warming Canziani was one of the many scientists who shared in the Nobel glory.
Even though the Peace Prize is not a science award, there’s nothing stopping an activist group from employing a little sleight-of-hand, from implying that anyone connected to the IPCC is ipso facto a “Nobel laureate.” In this case, the gullible media fell for it.
Since everyone involved with the IPCC (except the expert reviewers) is now technically a “Nobel laureate” – and may well get described as such by journalists – just how awkward could this matter become? Actually, rather awkward indeed.
Last year, when a committee of the InterAcademy Council investigated the IPCC, 232 people filled out a questionnaire. Their remarks were later anonymized and released in a massive 678-page PDF. The quotes below are drawn only from the IPCC insiders who answered the questionnaire. (At the beginning of the questionnaire people indicate what positions they’ve held with the IPPC; bolding has been added by me.)
IPCC works hard for geographic diversity. This is one valuable criterion, but it is not sufficient to choose a lead author. The result is that some of the lead authors (generally although not always from developing countries) are clearly not qualified to be lead authors and are unable to contribute in a meaningful way to the writing of the chapter. (page 16)
…two [lead authors] on our chapter (one from a developing country and one European) never wrote a word or contributed much to discussions – nevertheless they remained credited. I felt this was unfair on those that actually wrote the text. (p. 35)
…it is clearly noticeable that the [author nomination] process occasionally brings authors with poor knowledge or poor motivation into [lead author] positions. p. 46)
The need for geographic and gender balance in selecting the bureau and [working group] Chairs is a problem. The [working group] Chairs from developing nations do not carry half the load – most are incapable of doing so. (p. 50)
The problems caused by requiring geographic and gender balance are equally important at the lead author level. The developing nation participants on my Chapter team had limited understanding of developments outside their region and limited resources to obtain better understanding. (p. 50)
The calibre of the participants has been declining. For the Second Assessment Report, the WG III policy chapter had a Nobel Laureate in economics (Kenneth Arrow) and a future Laureate (Joseph Stiglitz). For the Third Assessment Report, the WG III policy chapter had full professors of environmental economics and law from three prestigious universities – Peter Bohm, Stockholm; Thomas Heller, Stanford and Robert Stavins, Harvard. For the Fourth Assessment Report this had fallen to one full professor of environmental economics – Charles Kolstad, UC Santa Barbara. (p. 71)
Since I have been selected for several IPCC reports, I have no personal prejudice (or grouse) on the process. However, regarding the selection of Lead Authors, I am more worried since the distortions, opaqueness and arbitrariness that is lately creeping into the process seems alarming. It seems that knowledge and scientific contributions are increasingly at discount in selection of authors compared to the personal connections, affiliations and political accommodations. (p. 78)
In the present process, there are four meetings where the IPCC Authors primarily meet. Many authors are absent and also some hardly contribute. The report therefore is finally prepared by a few… (p. 79)
In WGI AR4, my judgment is that about 20% of the authors did very little, but the 80% who actually wrote the report were excellent. The 20% included some lazy people who just wanted the honor of being [a lead author] without the chore of actually doing the work. (p. 83)
The selection of lead authors is based on a mix of competence and politics. The result unfortunately is usually a chapter team that has 3-5 people who do most of the work… (p. 117)
There are far too many politically correct appointments, so that developing country scientists are appointed who have insufficient scientific competence to do anything useful. This is reasonable if it is regarded as a learning experience, but in my chapter in AR4 we had half of the [lead authors] who were not competent. (p. 138)
The predominant concern appears to be geographic, gender…balance rather than making sure that the best [lead authors] are chosen… (p. 160, first ellipsis in the original)
I have made a suggestion above to…improve the process of selecting co-chairs and authors more based on merit and less on politics. (p. 162)
The need to have a geographical balance enforces to select some authors, mostly from developing countries, which do not have the necessary expertise…Some authors do not deliver any work at all, or their work is untimely and/or of poor quality. (p. 233)
Sometimes, [lead authors] recommended from developing countries are bureaucrats with little scientific background…I recommend strongly to emphasize more academic background of [lead authors] in selecting them… (pp. 261-2, first ellipsis in the original)
…lead authors, especially from developing countries, are approached to participate (or be nominated) and often have their “arms twisted” to participate. They then battle to meet the work load…Their names are included in the list of authors and hence add to the credibility of the output – but the input has been limited. Secondly I have experienced the addition of lead authors or [contributing] authors during the process who often seem to come with a political mandate – generally from developed countries and as such they can be very disruptive – let alone the dubious nature of the science they contribute! (p. 277)
The role of gender and geographic factors in selecting authors/lead authors/review editors should be suppressed. Scientific quality and background should be the main criterion…(p. 288)
…the necessity of a political spread of the working group chairs, makes that not always the most competent people are there. (p. 295)
…half of the authors are there for simply representing different parts of the world. This makes author groups very large, and often not effective where two or three authors per chapter still do all the work. Also countries nominate, and sometimes nominate not pure scientists, but people also involved in [Conference of the Parties] negotiations. (p. 296)
The team members from the developing countries (including myself) were made to feel welcome and accepted as part of the team. In reality we were out of our intellectual depth as meaningful contributors to the process.) (p. 330)
The repetitive process of an entire review at five year intervals has become burdensome to the key scientists, many of whom would prefer to remain doing science rather than sitting in committees. One result is that eventually the B-team or C-team are nominated to serve, while the A-team stays at home to do the work. (p. 332)
Typically, in an author team of two [coordinating lead authors] and seven [lead authors], three of the [lead authors] will be non-performers… (p. 333, ellipses in the original)
Developing country expert “tokenism”: While not always true, at times the developing country authors are chosen more to boost diversity and legitimacy than for substantive input. (p. 364; underscore in original)
…given that [lead author] roles are pre-assigned there is no leverage…to induce adequate contributions from the entire team. Some [lead authors] simply did not contribute enough but because they were nominated by their governments, nothing could be done to induce them to contribute. (p. 365)
Many scientists are [selected] by their political position and not by their competence. (p. 373)
The most important problem of the IPCC is the nomination and selection of authors and Bureau Members. Some experts are included or excluded because of their political allegiance rather than their academic quality. Sometimes, the “right” authors are put in key positions with generous government grants to support their IPCC work, while the “wrong” authors are sidelined to draft irrelevant chapters and sections without any support. (p. 542)
The whole process… [is] flawed by an excessive concern for geographical balance. All decisions are political before being scientific. (p.554)
I tried very hard to engage my [Working Group 2] bureau…only one out of six was really helpful. Two others meant well, but didn’t know the science well enough to be constructive, and the other three were simply unprepared to help in any meaningful way. (p. 587)
To sum up, therefore, a significant number of IPPC insiders believe many of their colleagues possess inferior scientific credentials. They believe these people’s participation in the IPCC is a result of concerns that have nothing to do with science.
Instead, they were chosen because they are of the right gender or the right nationality. They were chosen because they are pals with the person who makes such decisions in a particular country. They were chosen because they are considered politically “safe” by their own governments.
All of these people – no matter how little they actually contributed to the IPCC process – are now Nobel laureates.
Large hat tip to Hilary Ostrov, whose persistence shook loose these questionnaires.