I’m pleased to see that my recent paper, “Climate Change: A Software Grand Challenge” is getting some press attention. However, I’m horrified to see how it’s been distorted in the echo chamber of the media. Danny Bradbury, writing in the Guardian, gives his piece the headline “Climate scientists should not write their own software, says researcher“. Aaaaaaargh! Nooooo! That’s the exact opposite of what I would say!

Our research shows that earth system models, the workhorses of climate science, appear to have very few bugs, and produce remarkably good simulations of past climate. One of the most important success factors is that the code is written by the scientists themselves, as they understand the domain inside out. Now, of course, this leads to other problems, for instance the code is hard to understand, and hard to modify. And the job of integrating the various components of the models is really hard. But there are no obvious solutions to fix this without losing this hands-on relationship between the scientists and the code. Handing the code development over to software professionals is likely to be a disaster.

I’ve posted a comment on Bradbury’s article, but I have very little hope he’ll alter the headline, as it obviously plays into a storyline that’s popular with denialists right now (see update, below).

Some other reports:

Update (2/9/10): Well that’s a delight! I just got off the overnight train to Paris, and discover that Danny has commented here, and wants to put everything right, and has already corrected the headline in the BusinessGreen version. So, apologies to Danny for doubting him, and also, thanks for restoring my faith in journalism. As is clear in some of the comments, it’s easy to see how one might draw the conclusion that climate scientists shouldn’t write their own code from a reading of my paper. It’s a subtle point, so I probably need to write a longer piece on this to explain…

Update #2 (later that same day): And now the Guardian headline has been changed too. Victory for honest journalism!


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  2. So someone writes an entire article about your work, but doesn’t check it with you first, or attempt to contact you at all? That’s quality journalism right there. And the Guardian too. Great.

  3. Hi Steve. On the contrary, I’m very eager to speak with you about this. My apologies for misunderstanding your work. Have mailed you and left a voice message. Please call. A follow-up story would be useful, I think.

    Dan, I got to Steve’s story after Toronto had shut down for the evening, so the story was (I thought) a straight interpretation of the paper, which is publicly available online. Clearly a mistake was made, which I am now doing my best to fix. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

  4. No, the headline was more or less mine. I take responsibility for that.

  5. From ‘Recent Lessons’

    Software quality is a particular concern. Climate scientists
    build a variety of software tools to support their work. At
    the heart of the eld are the Global Circulation Models
    (GCMs) that simulate the atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere
    and biosphere, to study the processes of climate change on
    a global scale, and generate future projections used in the
    IPCC assessments [14]. Less glamourous, but equally im-
    portant, a large number of data handling and analysis tools
    are used for processing the raw observational data and the
    results of simulation runs, and for sharing climate data with
    the broader scienti c community. Most of this software is
    built by the climate scientists themselves, who have little or
    no training in software engineering. As a result the quality
    of this software varies tremendously: The GCMs tend to be
    exceptionally well engineered [5], while some data processing
    tools are barely even tested.


    manage and coordinate large-scale open source design

    and from the conclusion where you said you argued for a massive mobilization of talent I can see where someone skimming your paper would conclude that the climate scientists should at a minimum be writing less of their own software. A more complete reading makes your point clear. The software engineers do have a role to play going forward, but not by taking over everything.
    I suspect the climate scientists would make for tough customers for us. Good requirement specs are so rare and the people who can write them are like tiny diamonds lost on a sandy beach.

  6. To give Danny some credit, he did admit to the mistake in the comments and wants to correct himself.

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