The dispute between Professor Peter Ridd and James Cook University is an issue of importance well beyond the immediate matter of academic freedom of speech. The attempt by the JCU administration to silence Professor Ridd is misguided, damaging to the reputation of the university and of questionable legality. Worse yet, it ignores a clear opportunity to turn the matter into a positive outcome for JCU, Professor Ridd and the wider community. It is time for the Governing Council of JCU to exercise its oversight responsibilities and intervene with the administration to change course.
The key concern of Professor Ridd is the widespread acceptance of unverified research claims as a basis for government policy with no critical assessment. This problem in particularly rife in the environmental sciences and much of the management of the Great Barrier Reef is founded on it. That the problem of dubious science is not just a fringe opinion is evidenced by several recent extensive reviews in leading scientific journals. These studies have found that about half of reports published in leading journals fail to yield similar results when attempts have been made to replicate them. In view of the numerous complexities, uncertainties and inherent variabilities of environmental phenomena it can be safely assumed that GBR research will not be a shining exception.
A further difficulty regarding GBR research is that most of the funding comes from grants and approval is much more likely if some threat to the reef is involved. Then, when funding is predicated on investigating a problem, the one thing that will almost certainly never be found is that there wasn’t one. Worse yet, when hypothetical threats receive funding priority there becomes a need to find and promote them. The result is now a whole generation of researchers whose entire experience of the reef has been in the context of promoting and investigating such threats. With little long term or widespread experience of reefs they tend to perceive every fluctuation of nature in these very dynamic ecosystems as evidence of some human impact.
With many millions of dollars in research funding at stake and JCU receiving a half-share for their overhead charges, reef threats have a substantial dollar value as well as affording widespread publicity for researchers and the university. By contrast, a healthy reef or a natural fluctuation attracts little funding or attention. There is a conflict of interest between threats to the reef and its actually very healthy condition prevailing over vast but often changing areas.
Although actual human impact on the reef has been trivial in both extent and severity, the same cannot be said for the impact of misguided environmental regulation on our own ecology. Over the past three decades this has been a major factor in driving three-quarters of our primary producers from their industries. Overwhelmingly, those squeezed out were the small, low-overhead family operations which provided us some of the best quality and lowest cost food in the world. Since then we have experienced the steepest food price increases in the developed economies, double the average rate for OECD nations.
With by far the largest per capita exclusive fishing zone in the world we now import three-quarters of the seafood we eat. With the largest and one of the richest and least impacted reef areas in the world we have limited our commercial reef fish catch to a tonnage which equates to an annual harvest rate of about 9 Kg per Km2 of reef and lagoon area.. This is claimed necessary to avoid overfishing. In contrast, the World Resource Institute in their global review of the Status of Coral Reefs cites 15,000 Kg per Km2 as being a sustainable rate for well managed reef fisheries. This is not a ridiculous amount. It comes to 150 Kg per Ha or similar to sheep or cattle on moderately good grazing land.
Unfortunately, the economic cost doesn’t stop at the fish shop. Our farmers and graziers are being increasingly burdened with costly and restrictive regulations to purportedly “save” the reef from hypothetical “impacts” which can’t be shown to actually exist on the reef, which do nothing for its health and result only in further increases in food prices. As for reef tourism, visitors are experiencing the same wonder and beauty they always have but all the pseudo-science propaganda about the dying reef has only encouraged many potential visitors to go elsewhere. Even more unreal, there is now a strong political movement to close down our reliable low-cost coal fired power plants when we are the only developed nation in which the natural CO2 uptake is less than emissions making us a net CO2 sink and whereby we should be receiving credits for absorbing CO2 from elsewhere. I could go on about the eco-unreality, but this is not the place.
Last week an online gofundme.com campaign to assist in Professor Ridd’s legal costs received a groundswell of support and raised a remarkable $100,000 from over 800 contributors. It is apparent there is a powerful undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the increasingly obvious environmental farce pretending to save the reef. The next important thing now is to bring pressure to bear on JCU to not just settle with Professor Ridd but to take a proactive position in addressing the problem of a lack of critical assessment of research findings, especially those to be relied upon by government.
Although this is the key concern expressed by Professor Ridd, it appears to be pointedly ignored by JCU. They have form in this regard. In 2010 I published an article detailing 18 specific and clearly stated concerns involving false or misleading claims in a reef management report in which 12 JCU staff and students were listed as co-authors. Many of the matters listed entailed easily verified unequivocal matters of fact and, in several instances, the refuting evidence was from other work by some of the same researchers. After bringing this to the attention of the JCU administration their response failed to address any of the 18 concerns in my submission. They chose instead to waffle on about their complaint procedures, concluding they could find nothing wrong while totally ignoring any of the actual substance of my concerns. A .pdf file documenting details of this matter is available for download.
In the documentation made available in the current dispute with Professor Ridd it appears his concerns are receiving a similar pattern of response. Hopefully, the governing council of the university can be prevailed upon to intervene with the administration to bring them to a realisation of the need, and indeed the positive opportunity, to address the substance of the concerns expressed by Professor Ridd. Positively approached by JCU, they could lead the way in addressing an emerging problem in science and especially in its use for government policy.
Readers who might wish to contact the JCU council to urge them to take action in this matter can find further information on the council at their webpage.
A marine biologist, Walter Starck has spent much of his career studying coral reef and marine fishery ecosystems