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Editorial: A fishy tale of climate research

Editorial, The Australian

Allegations of possible scientific fraud involving James Cook University and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies strengthen the argument for better quality assurance when it comes to research involving the Great Barrier Reef.

A bitter international dispute has been raging over whether fish lose their mind when faced with higher levels of carbon dioxide in seawater (sic), one consequence of climate change. The issue is bigger than the stability of the piscatorial mind, however. It is whether tertiary institutions and the bodies that dole out billions of dollars in research grants are up to the task of overseeing the quality of what they are supporting and paying for.

Many scientists argue that quality assurance is provided through the process of peer review and that is all that is required. And it can be said that much of the debate about the research currently in dispute has been played out in the scientific literature and will be concluded in the academic spirit. So far, however, there have been red faces and bruised egos all around but not a lot of action. The Australian Research Council says it has left JCU to investigate and will closely monitor the investigation and act on its findings.

Things hit a new gear with the publication on Friday of an article in Science magazine that brings details of years of infighting out into the open. Most worrying are comments by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reviewer Hans-Otto Portner, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, that “if such a controversy gets outside of the community, it’s harmful because the whole community loses credibility”.

The controversy puts a fresh focus on the predicament faced by former JCU professor Peter Ridd, who has been entangled in protracted and expensive legal battles because of his public stand on the quality of reef science. Dr Ridd was sacked by JCU in 2018 for breaching university guidelines designed to enforce a collegiate atmosphere for academic staff. Raising concerns about possible shortcomings in the quality of research on the Great Barrier Reef was considered a step too far. But Dr Ridd’s concerns were fuelled by research showing that scientific findings could not be replicated across a broad range of disciplines, notably in medicine.

Dr Ridd won his case against JCU for unfair dismissal but lost on appeal. He will be back in the High Court next month. Dr Ridd has put up $300,000 of his own money and raised a further $1.5m from concerned supporters around the world. His lawyers will argue in the High Court that the Appeal Court made an error in law in saying the university code of conduct overrode the right to academic freedom. Dissenting Appeal Court justice Darryl Cameron Rangiah identified that criticism, by its nature, was likely to offend. He said it was “difficult to see, for example, how an academic could make a genuine allegation that a colleague has engaged in academic fraud without being uncollegial, disrespectful and discourteous and adversely affecting JCU’s good reputation”.

The latest upset involving disoriented fish shows that vigorous scientific debate is a good thing and that there are scientists around the world prepared to stand up and call out what they believe to be wayward practice. It is also a good sign that Science magazine has been prepared to step into the ring and publish arguments that favour a rigorous process to consider the claims that have been made. The truth is out there and for credibility JCU and the ARC should take it seriously. Further thought also should be given to establishing the sort of quality assurance body recommended by Dr Ridd that has landed him in so much hot water for the good of science. Ultimately, it would save a lot of time and money and provide a greater level of confidence that limited research funds provided by taxpayers and donors were being well spent.

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