The scientist and the rapist

birminghamMinister Birmingham (centre) visits James Cook on April 18.

Just on a month ago, Senator Simon Birmingham stopped by James Cook University for one of those visits education ministers either enjoy or don’t but must nevertheless endure: tea, biscuits, fine words and much handshaking with administrators and senior academics. When you are an institution that has received some $26.8 million in federal block grants, that sum for 2018 alone, the bon homie of one’s hosts is guaranteed to flow even more freely than the Earl Grey. The senator had some fine words as well, extolling the university’s “work integrated learning”, which might well be edu-speak for taxpayer-backed programs to ensure recent arts grads know how to flip hamburgers or, failing that, find their nearest Centrelink offices.

While the senator was on campus it would be nice to think he raised the matter of Peter Ridd, finally fired over the weekend after a campaign of harassment and smear for daring to note what everyone who is not a grant-fed academic knows: that the Great Barrier Reef stands up much better to Nature’s caprice than do papers predicting its demise to scrutiny. Apparently the latter are so fragile that, when an academic questions their research and data, he simply has to be fired.

That’s one issue Mr Birmingham could have raised: academic freedom, which you might think would be of considerable interest to a minister overseeing education and the disbursement of public monies that underwrite it.

And there is another and related matter, a most unsavoury affair, that would have flowed logically, indeed inevitably, from the Ridd matter: in comparison with the treatment accorded Mr Ridd, why was JCU staffer Douglas Steele not merely allowed to remain in his job with the university’s School of Health but actually promoted after being charged with the rape of an Aboriginal student? Steele tried to persuade police that his violation of the student was but an accident when she passed out drunk on the sofa in his home. His finger slipped, he said. The court was unimpressed and Steele copped two years, of which he served four months.

It would seem there is more than a dash of inconsistency in James Cook’s HR policies.

Contacted by Quadrant Online on Tuesday (May 22), the minister’s office emailed the following statement:

“Researchers and universities should be willing to have their work stand up to scrutiny,” Minister Birmingham said.

“Any university should be encouraging their researchers and students to ask questions, not shutting down debate.

“JCU ought to publicly explain the grounds for Professor Ridd’s termination to allay public concerns that they may have been seeking to silence Professor Ridd instead of answering his questions and criticisms.”

Notice the last paragraph, in which Mr Birmingham calls on the university to “explain the grounds for Professor Ridd’s termination.” The university has done this already, explaining itself in terms so ridiculous that people who believe in academic freedom and verifiable research have so far contributed some $200,000-plus to his legal fighting fund. Surely a more pertinent wording would have been:

‘This Ridd fellow says your researchers are churning out dubious papers at a great rate of knots. Are you looking into his allegation that reefs specifically mentioned as being on their last legs are, in fact, quite healthy? All you’d need to do is take a boat there and have a look. We can’t be showering taxpayer money on frauds, don’t you know!’

For a dose of reality on the Reef, its condition, history and the alarmist-industrial complex, follow this link or the one below for a video lecture from Quadrant contributor and marine biologist Walter Starck. He wouldn’t last five minutes at JCU, even if he raped a student.

— roger franklin

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