by Don Aitkin
I have written a couple of times about Peter Ridd, here and here. Professor Ridd, a well-published academic whose fields of research include coastal oceanography, reef systems and peer review, has been for ten years the Head of the School of Physics at James Cook University (JCU). When he drew attention to what he saw as exaggerations in the way fellow academics at his university were describing the condition of the Great Barrier Reef he was ‘disciplined’ by JCU, told that he was being uncollegial, and that if he did it again he would be charged with serious misconduct. He subsequently wrote to me about this matter, and that email was seen by the University to be a further sign of misconduct. Professor Ridd decided that he had enough, and launched a legal suit against the University, claiming conflict of interest and bias. The conflict of interest might arise because the Vice-Chancellor of the University is also a director of the Australian Institute for Marine Science, some of whose work Professor Ridd had criticised. He has since withdrawn that part of his suit addressing possible bias on the part of the Vice-Chancellor of the University.
Professor Ridd has now been sacked. Not many professors in Australian universities have ever been fired, and sacking should require some extraordinary misbehaviour on the part of the professor. Professor Ridd is not accepting his sacking quietly, and has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars within a week through crowd-funding. There is going to be a court case.
This is a sad event in Australian higher education, for all sorts of reasons, and at its heart is the working of a new and most important engine in academe. In 1990 I gave an address in England, subsequently published in both the UK and Australia, deploring the extent to which research had become the be-all and end-all of appointment, promotion and honour in our universities. That trend has continued, despite the awards for good teaching, which did not exist when I gave that address.
The engine works this way. There is strong pressure on all academics to bring in research grant money for the department, the faculty and university. Those who do it well find their careers advancing quickly. To assist them there are media sections in universities whose job it is to frame the research work of academics in a way that will gain the attention of the media. Such media releases will come with as arresting a headline as the media section can devise. Buzzwords like ‘breakthrough’, ‘crucial’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘revolution’ will be used. If possible, the staff members will appear on television, with the accompaniment of familiar stock images of laboratories and machines. The staff members will also be aware (or made aware) of the opportunity they have to advance their careers and names through writing another version of their published journal article for The Conversation, a website in which academics can write in more accessible language for an inquiring lay readership. Free from the requirements of journal house-rules, the staff members will be able to lard up their findings, call for urgency in funding and, where that is apposite, demand political attention. The output of the engine is heightened recognition of the name of the university, the academics and their area, and of course the likely prospect of more research money. All those in the engine-room think that they are just doing their jobs. The engine did not exist thirty years ago.
None of this is much of a problem in the more recondite areas of academic research, string theory in physics, for example, or advanced econometrics in the social sciences. But it is a problem, and a rapidly growing one, in areas of research where what is actually the case is contested vigorously by others. An eye has to be kept on the source of the money going to higher education research, which in our country is overwhelmingly the Australian Government. In 2014, not quite four billion dollars was available within the higher education system for research, all of it from the Commonwealth. In addition universities made another billion or thereabouts from consultancy and research for other funders. That is a lot of money. As the last Chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee in 1987 I had a little over $30 million to parcel out. The engine has been most effective.
In the last forty years governments have become interested in universities’ finding academic support for what they are proposing or have in place. We are in an era of ‘policy-based evidence’. We are also in an era of a particular political correctness, where it is very difficult indeed to get funds for research if the purpose of the research seems antithetical to current government policy. ‘Curiosity-directed research’ now comes with some serious barriers. Nowhere is this situation clearer than in the case of research on the Great Barrier Reef, in which Professor Ridd has been involved. A bucket-load of money has been devoted to ‘the Reef’, and another half-billion was forecast in the recent Budget, some of which will doubtless go the James Cook University, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The Reef, as is frequently said, is an Australian ‘icon’. An icon is a religious object. Professor Ridd is a scientist, not a priest.
To have people like Professor Ridd decrying the hyperbole with which some research has been couched could imperil future grant money (notwithstanding the recent half-billion), and it would be understandable if academics within JCU have appealed to their Vice-Chancellor to shut Professor Ridd up. Something like this was presumably the reason the late Professor Bob Carter, an internationally distinguished geologist at JCU, was stripped of his adjunct status (which meant he could not use the University Library’s resources, a real penalty). Carter, like Ridd, was concerned to point to the errors of balance and rigour in research and publication on the reef.
There is no likely good outcome from this legal battle. Early on I wrote to the JCU Vice-Chancellor to suggest that she move to settle the issues quickly and away from the court. JCU’s reputation can only worsen as the trial continues, while Professor Ridd will spend his entire time raising money and defending his position. In the meantime his students and colleagues have lost a fine teacher and colleague.
And who is giving attention to the engine, let alone to the engine-room? So far, the major players have remained silent. The Minister, Simon Birmingham, has said nothing, Universities Australia likewise, the NTEU likewise (though it did come to the defence of another professor a few years ago, forced out on what a judge described as a sham redundancy claim). Sacking senior staff who have tried to point out that all is not right with the world is a singular matter, one which, if it passes without comment, can only lead other universities to try and get rid of their own ‘trouble-makers’ the same way. The ability of academics to speak up and out has been one of the universities’ great virtues for at least the last hundred years. They used to be proud of it, too. What is happening at JCU is deeply disturbing to those who value freedom of speech and justified criticism. As the Popper quote at the head of my website reminds us, we learn through disagreement.
Sacked James Cook University Professor Peter Ridd who blew the whistle on fictitious ‘climate change’ research continues to fight the institution over disciplinary action and now termination of employment.
He has received the same scurrilous treatment as his colleague, the late Professor Bob Carter who also made public the incredibly erroneous and false science behind global warming and its alleged deleterious effect on the Great Barrier Reef.
Both academics questioned the veracity of research and the alleged reef destruction claimed by the leftist academic junta at the Cairns and Townsville campuses.
Both were ostracised and censured for attacking the ‘dodgy’ science which the university academia continuously bleats with the aid of the ABC in order to keep the state and federal grants lining the coffers..
The nitwit PM Turnbull pledged $500 million in the budget to appease the green Mafioso in the hope of sidelining some Green votes and in an effort to keep local federal Liberal member Warren Entsch in the seat of Leichardt.
Both academics for some years have stated almost categorically, ‘there is nothing wrong with the reef’ and ‘climate change’…… is bloody nonsense.
A crowdfunding page has been re-opened for Professor Ridd’s mounting legal costs. His comments appear below:
Just an update of my battle
On 2 May, 2018, I received a letter from James Cook University (JCU) terminating my employment. JCU have sacked me because I dared to fight the university and speak the truth about science and the Great Barrier Reef.
Shortly after I went public with the GoFundMe campaign to which you donated in February the university presented me with a further set of misconduct allegations, which alleged that I acted inappropriately by talking about the case and have now ended my employment.
I will be fighting their employment termination, alongside the original 25 charges behind JCU’s ‘final censure’ last year.
As a consequence of the sacking, and the new misconduct allegations, my legal costs have substantially increased. JCU appears to be willing to spend their near unlimited legal resources fighting me. In the name of honesty and truth in science, we must fight back. We have an excellent legal team and are confident that we can win the legal case.
I feel extremely indebted to all those who have given so generously. I was blown away by the number of people who supported me, and I had hoped that more funding would not be necessary. Sadly, however circumstances have changed.
I have contributed another $15000 of my own money, in addition to the $24000k I have already spent. However, based on the growing complexity of the case, we will need to raise an additional $159000. It is a bit frightening, but we have reopened the GoFundMe site to receive more donations.
You have already contributed generously so all I ask of you is to help spread the word to expand the number of people who are helping.
I know there were many who were unable to donate the first time – including my own Mum – due to the speed we reached the original target of $95K.
For additional background on all the new allegations from JCU, I have uploaded all the documentation so that you can judge JCU’s allegations for yourself if you wish. https://wordpress.com/page/platogbr.wordpress.com/223
In summary, JCU (1) objects to my criticism of the earlier allegations; (2) criticised my involvement with the Institute of Public Affairs; and (3) objects to me not remaining silent. The facts of the matter are simple: (1) the earlier allegations were an unreasonable infringement on my academic freedom, I was well within my rights to criticise JCU; (2) I have never been paid by the IPA, other than some initial support for my legal case and reimbursement for flights and hotels related to speaking arrangements which is normal academic practice; and (3) I am well within my rights, as stated by my employment agreement, to speak publicly about disciplinary proceedings.
JCU censures its own Professor for telling the truth “… there is nothing wrong with the Barrier Reef…”
The Australian Institute of Marine Studies has been caught out telling porkies….
by Don Aitkin
Well, the pressure to conform is happening again, and at Professor Bob Carter’s old university, James Cook University in Townsville. The late Bob Carter was censured by JCU some years ago for ridiculing the Global Warming theory. This time the proposed villain is JCU professor of physics, Peter Ridd, whose interests include coastal oceanography, the effects of sediments upon coral reefs, past and future climates and atmospheric modelling. I have met Peter Ridd, and I know something about his work. He has been head of the Department of Physics for ten years. His intellectual reach is wider than my short summary here, but I have put in what gives him some status in the world of global warming.
Professor Ridd’s comments on Sky news, to the effect that “We can no longer trust the scientific organisations like the Australian Institute of marine Science, even things like the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies… The science is coming out not properly checked, tested or replicated, and this is a great shame.”
He has been in the news before, drawing attention to the need to change the peer review system, and to what he sees as exaggerated claims about the dangers that threaten the Great Barrier Reef, alleging that scientists or spokesmen for scientific organisations like the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and government organisations like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) were not behaving in a scientifically scrupulous way in announcing new claims and about danger. He was not alone in saying these things. The chairman of GBRMPA himself protested that headlines saying that ’93 per cent of the reef is ‘critically dead’ or that 35 per cent or even 50 per cent of the entire reef is now gone’ were rubbish. A former chairman said that ‘environmentalist were ‘exaggerating the impact of coral bleaching for political and financial gain’. Ridd said that a paper by JCU scientists foretelling the end of the reef was simply ‘laughable’. Bleaching is a natural event, and occurred long before there was human activity anywhere near the reef. What is more, reefs recover, sometimes quite quickly.
Nonetheless, the university told him he was ‘not displaying responsibility in respecting the reputations of other colleagues’. Do it again, he was told, and we’ll try you for ‘serious misconduct’. I’ve written about this before, and indeed the above is an introduction to the news that JCU indeed decided to discipline Professor Ridd, and started the process in late August last year. What for? The University’s statement is that it was disturbed by Professor Ridd’s comments on Sky news, to the effect that ‘We can no longer trust the scientific organisations like the Australian Institute of marine Science, even things like the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies… The science is coming out not properly checked, tested or replicated, and this is a great shame.’ Such statements, said the University, were ‘not in the collegial and academic spirit of the search for knowledge, understanding and truth’. Further, his comments had denigrated AIMS and were ‘not respectful and courteous’. In a letter tabled with the court, the University said that his comments could damage the reputation of AIMS and the University’s relationships with it.
On this occasion, Professor Ridd decided he had had enough, and launched his own court case against the CEO, claiming conflict of interest, apprehended bias and actual bias. It happens that the University’s Vice-Chancellor is a director of AIMS, which produces an obvious conflict of interest. The University then told Ridd he was not to ‘disclose or discuss these matters with media or in any other public forum’. His lawyers pointed out that either the University was incompetent or it was guided by bias, which the University’s lawyers denied.
Peter Ridd was kind enough to write to me about the alleged misconduct involved in talking to the media about the misconduct allegation, and later alerted me to the fact that there was deemed to be further misconduct involved in writing to me! I wish him well in all of this, which is so unnecessary, and so inimical to the cause of scholarship, argument and the advancement of knowledge.
I can appreciate the dilemma facing the Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University, for there is no doubt that research grant money is really important. I have to say that I did not have a comparable problem in my eleven years in the role, despite the pressure on everyone to get grant money if they could. Nonetheless, there is no doubt where I think the right is. A scientist who says that other people’s work is flawed has to show cause. In the case of the Great Barrier Reef that is not hard to do. There has been a lot of loud noise based on small pieces of work. It is not widely understood that the Reef is a vast system, and that it is not closely monitored. You would need hundreds, thousands, of researchers and assistants to do that. And there are lots of natural and cyclic causes for changes to the Reef’s coral. These events have happened before, and they will happen again. The correct response from those he has criticised is to respond in the proper way, show that Ridd is wrong, and that their work can withstand his criticism.
To the best of my knowledge that has not happened. Instead, Professor Ridd has been attacked in an ad hominem way. It seems to me utterly wrong for his own University to try to ‘discipline’ him so that he does not criticise others. That is not what science is about. It doesn’t matter what relationships JCU has with AIMS. If the AIMS work is poor, or inflated claims have been made about the importance of its research, the University ought to be able to point that out, and suggest that better work ought to be done, or that claims should be more subdued.
Ah, but this is the Reef, an icon of the environmental movement. And there is a lot of money about for ‘research’ that is ‘consistent’ with the notion that doom is at hand. Like Professor Ridd, I think that the University has gone down utterly the wrong track, and the sooner it departs from it the better. As it happens, the book I referred to at the beginning of this essay, No End of a Lesson, gives instances of other high-handed behaviour from Vice-Chancellors. They are not emperors, and should never give the impression that they think they are.