Australian university scrutinises former student’s research record, as whistleblowers refute ocean acidification theory
An Australian university has launched an investigation into the research record of a discredited scientist it educated, as findings by academics who supervised her doctoral training are challenged in the journal Nature.
James Cook University said it has appointed an external panel to look for evidence of misconduct in the research conducted by marine biologist Oona Lönnstedt between 2010 and 2014, when she was undertaking PhD studies at the Queensland institution.
The university said the panel’s as yet unidentified members include “eminent academics with expertise in field work, marine science and ethics” and a former federal court judge.READ MORE
The university announced the investigation a year ago after Dr Lönnstedt had been found guilty of fabricating data underpinning a study in her native Sweden, following her departure from JCU.
That study, published in 2016 in the journal Science, was retracted in 2017. Formal concerns have also been raised over data missing from three of the 15 papers Dr Lönnstedt co-authored while at JCU.
A spokesman for the university said the panel appointments had been delayed by internal investigations. He said the panel would report by the end of February “or such other date as agreed with the university”, and that JCU intended to release the findings “subject to legal and privacy considerations and any other obligations”.
Meanwhile, seven researchers who exposed Dr Lönnstedt’s misconduct have now cast doubt on a theory of ocean acidification that was championed by her PhD supervisors and featured in her doctoral thesis. The researchers say that their paper, published in Nature on 8 January, “comprehensively and transparently” refutes research findings that rising carbon dioxide levels in the oceans will make small coral reef fish easy pickings for predators.
Their three-year study harnessed more than 900 fish from six species, in attempts to replicate studies including JCU research published over the past decade. The team could not reproduce experimental findings that the carbon dioxide concentrations predicted by the end of the century would jeopardise small species’ sustainability by making them hyperactive, predictable and oblivious to predators.
Lead author of the three-year study, Timothy Clark, said it was the first time anybody had attempted to replicate the “profound” effects of carbon dioxide on fish behaviour outlined in dozens of studies conducted by “a small group of researchers”. He said the team had taken great care to match the conditions of the previous studies while improving the methodology “to maximise transparency and minimise the potential for experimenter biases”.
Dr Clark, an aquatic physiologist at Victoria’s Deakin University, said it was difficult to overturn scientific ideas that had been aired in high-impact journals and the media. “We have exhausted all reasonable methodological avenues to explain the disparity in our findings compared with previous studies,” he said.
“The global scientific community deserves to understand how it is possible to achieve such remarkably different findings when addressing the same question.”
Five of the studies the team scrutinised were led by JCU reef researcher Philip Munday. Some were co-authored by marine ecologist Mark McCormick, who recently left JCU, and the University of Saskatchewan’s Douglas Chivers. The trio were Dr Lönnstedt’s PhD supervisors and have collaborated on at least six papers about the impacts of elevated carbon dioxide on fish behaviour.