James Cook’s hip-pocket nerve


If Education Minister Simon Birmingham is paying more attention to his portfolio than seems to be the norm with the Turnbull cabinet, two articles in today’s Australian should give him pause. The first  concerns marine scientist Professor Peter Ridd, who is taking legal action against James Cook University. Here is how the story begins:

Outspoken James Cook Univer­sity professor Peter Ridd has taken Federal Court action claiming conflict of interest, apprehended bias and actual bias against vice-chancellor Sandra Harding.

Professor Ridd wants JCU to drop a misconduct investigation launched following his interview with Alan Jones on Sky News on August 1 in which he criticised the quality of Great Barrier Reef science.

In the interview, he said research findings by major institutions could not be trusted. “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.”

The Jones-Ridd interview can be heard in its entirety by following this link.

The second report tells us (emphasis added):

The Coalition government has not conceded the defeat of its higher education legislation, yet with two sitting weeks remaining in the year and a crossbench firmly opposed to its measures, it is virtually impossible that cuts to uni­versity funding and increases to student fees will pass the Senate.

Talk in higher education circles has shifted to other, non-legislative options the govern­ment may explore to achieve its desired $3 billion savings in higher education. Regrettably, the fear in the sector is that grant funding, which drives some of our most important research, may be at risk.

Money is fungible, so it might strike Mr Birmingham, were he to focus on the James Cook fracas, how cash that must now be spent on lawyers might otherwise go toward the promotion of actual education. Even allowing that the Senate will scotch prospective reforms and restructured funding, as The Australian notes, the minister has the power to examine how, on what, and with whom Australian Research Council funds are vested:

            Minister may establish designated committees

             (1)  The Minister may establish a committee or committees … to assist in carrying out the functions of the [ARC] CEO.

             (2)  The Minister may dissolve a designated committee at any time.

31  Functions of a designated committee

             (1)  A designated committee has the functions determined in writing by the Minister.

             (2)  In performing its functions, the committee must comply with any directions given to the committee by the Minister.

So, why not appoint the likes of marine biologist and Quadrant contributor Walter Starck? True, their purview would be limited to matters ARC-related, but they could certainly be directed to examine the quality of Reef-related and grant-supported science at James Cook, home to the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies with which Professor Ridd is at odds.

According to the most recent annual report’s statement of finances, the immodestly christened Centre for Excellence — a conceit to make one wince — pulled in some $5.4 million in ARC funding alone (click the image atop this post to see how the money rolls in). Such a move would put a cat amongst the pigeons and might even encourage the university to examine its practices and priorities. The overall tone of the annual report certainly seems to suggest a body committed to the partisan promotion of just one perspective: catastropharian derangement

Minister Birmingham could establish such a committee, but being part of the Turnbull government probably won’t.

To grasp what Reef researchers get up to, how their activities are reported, and why the field could use a stringent examination, follow this link or the one below for Walter Starck’s 2015 point-by-point demolition of the dubious science that has for so long been predicting the Reef’s imminent demise. For more about ARC grants, see Philippa Martyr’s essay “Taken for Granted”.

— roger franklin

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