Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


Ridd, Professor Peter

7:30 pm

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In May this year, Professor Peter Ridd was sacked by James Cook University. His crime? To calmly and consistently call for the implementation of a quality assurance process to verify and safeguard the integrity of scientific research. It started in 2016 when Professor Ridd was threatened with the sack but was, instead, censured for drawing attention to misleading photos used to support claims of severe damage to inshore reefs. These photos were in a 2014 report by the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

This report was so flawed that it prompted the former chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Ian McPhail, to observe that when it came to the reef it seemed there was a group of researchers who began with the premise that all was a disaster. The following year, Professor Ridd contributed a chapter to the book Climate Change: The Facts 2017where he stated that thermal bleaching from climate change was unlikely to be a primary threat to the Great Barrier Reef. A new disciplinary hearing was called, where Professor Ridd was ordered by the university to not speak publicly on the issue and to keep secret the disciplinary action being taken against him. Subsequent private conversations with other academic staff and his wife about the issue were regarded by JCU as evidence of misconduct.

As the university's disciplinary proceedings continued through 2017, Professor Ridd was due to undertake previously arranged public lectures on his work. JCU took the extraordinary step of insisting that the 30-year veteran of reef science and coastal oceanography have his presentations vetted. They told him to remove particular PowerPoint slides and instructed him about what could be said. This attempt to stifle Professor Ridd's statements on a subject in which he is an expert amounts to petty-minded and egregious interference in intellectual discussion and scientific inquiry.

Professor Ridd says that he has now been severely compromised as a well-respected academic being able to draw attention to quality assurance deficiencies in science. In August 2017, James Cook University informed Professor Ridd that he had committed serious academic misconduct by drawing attention publicly to the consequences of unverified scientific research. Professor Ridd concluded that the issue was descending into Star Chamber proceedings. So he made known the university's disciplinary action against him. He then started proceedings in the Federal Court against JCU. In May 2018 the tenured professor was fired.

Professor Ridd has studied the Great Barrier Reef for over 30 years and is of the firm view that threats to the reef from climate change and pollution, while present, are vastly exaggerated. He wants to see an independent agency checking the science before researchers spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers' funds. At what point did it become misconduct to call for discussion on quality assurance in scientific research? Who gets to determine which science is to be questioned and which will not—grant-seeking administrators or scientists?

What has the university done about the serious point raised by Ridd—that is, the poor quality assurance of publicly funded scientific research? Nothing. They are proceeding on the basis that if they make an example of Ridd no other academic will dare challenge the university groupthink or support the need for quality assurance of scientific research. These proceedings were initiated by Vice-Chancellor Sandra Harding, shrouded in secrecy, full of intimidation and an embarrassment to fair-minded inquiring minds. She should be sacked and, until she is, taxpayer funding of JCU should cease.