An independent report into the leak of hundreds of e-mails from one of the world's leading climate research centers is being published on Wednesday, with many scientists hoping it will help calm the global uproar kicked up by their publication online. Muir Russell's inquiry is the third major investigation into what some have dubbed "Climategate" - the theft and dissemination of more than 1,000 e-mails exchanged between climate scientists over more than a decade.
The messages, pilfered from a server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, 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.
Their dissemination across the Internet late last year created a sensation, energizing skeptics and destabilizing the international climate change talks in Copenhagen. The research center's director Phil Jones stepped down and the university called in Russell, a high ranking administrator, to investigate.
Many who study climate science or work in policy-related fields say the furor has put them in a tough spot.
"This has cast doubt over the whole community," said Bob Ward, the policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.
Ward said that the scandal had put scientists on notice that they were operating in a highly politicized environment - one in which personal conduct could come under as much scrutiny as the science itself. He added that he hoped the report "will in some ways draw a line under this."
The contents of Russell's report have been kept under wraps so far, but its stated agenda is to examine whether there is any evidence that scientists at the Climatic Research Unit doctored or suppressed data, perverted the peer review process, or improperly blocked Freedom of Information requests - something Britain's data-protection watchdog has already scolded the university for doing.
The report follows a British parliamentary inquiry which largely vindicated the scientists involved and another, parallel investigation which examined the soundness of the science itself. The reports have been criticized by skeptics who alleged they were incomplete or biased.
It has been difficult to gauge the impact of the scandal, which played widely in the British and U.S. media. In Britain, there is some evidence that public concern over global warming has been diluted, although not by much.
An Ipsos MORI poll published last month suggested that 78 percent of Britons believed that the world's climate was changing, compared with 91 percent five years earlier. Seventy-one percent of respondents expressed concern about global warming, versus 82 percent in 2005. The pollster surveyed 1,822 people aged 15 and over in face-to-face interviews between January and March 2010. Some scientists have said the scandal has made it impossible for researchers to hide data from their critics and pushed those who do believe in the dangers of man-made global warming to be more vocal about their doubts.
"The release of the e-mails was a turning point, a game-changer," Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, told The Guardian newspaper earlier this week.
"Already there is a new tone. Researchers are more upfront, open and explicit about their uncertainties, for instance." Ward agreed that, whatever the result of the inquiry, openness was the order of the day.
"There is a need to re-establish trust," he said.