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Peter Ridd: New fraud allegations deepen global science scandal

Dr Peter Ridd, Australia

An extraordinary expose by Science magazine reveals a deepening research scandal

James Cook University (JCU), based next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been at the forefront of claims that extra CO2 is dangerous to coral reef fish. CO2 supposedly changes fish behaviour including making them

* lose their ability to smell predators and become attracted towards the scent of predators,

* become hyper-active, 

* loose their tendency to automatically swim either left or right, and

* have impaired vision.

But a group of determined and principled scientists – I call them the Magnificent 7 – have doggedly questioned, and investigated, these claims.  The remarkable article appearing in Science magazine on 6 May 2021 documents the many twist and turns in this story. Are the remarkable results on fish behaviour fraudulent? Is there a cover up of fraud by universities and funding agencies? And why do senior scientists attack the Magnificent 7 just for wanting to check previous work?

The Magnificent 7 is led by Tim Clark and Fredrik Jutfelt along with five other international scientists. They are risking their careers blowing the whistle on a very powerful organisation in the marine biology community – JCU’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Despite Clark and Jutfelt’s work showing that CO2 does not seem to have much affect on fish behaviour, they still worry about other aspects of climate change. They are not climate “deniers” or hard-core sceptics. But they believe in scientific integrity, and that is a rare thing these days.

Almost a decade ago, Tim Clark was fascinated by the remarkable data of the effect of CO2 on fish behaviour coming from JCU. He wanted to study the physiological reasons for this effect. But once he started his experiments, he was unable to replicate the original JCU work.  With his co-workers he started a systematic replication study.

While this was occurring, one of the JCU fish-behaviour scientists, Oona Lonnstedt, had returned home to Sweden where she undertook more fish behaviour work on micro-plastics. She “discovered” that microplastics also affected fish behaviour making them more susceptible to being eaten by predators. But in 2017 the Magnificent 7 were able to prove, after a long battle with Uppsala University, that Lonnstedt’s work was fraudulent – she had made up the data.

The question was then asked – what about Lonnstedt’s work while she was at JCU, where she had worked on the influence of climate change on reef fish. And had she learnt fraud by herself or was there something more sinister?

In early 2020, the Magnificent 7 published their replication study. All the major results from JCU fish behaviour studies were unable to be replicated. They were 100% wrong. Much of the work was done by the group leader Prof Philip Munday and Danielle Dixson, who had since moved to U. Delaware.

The article in Science focuses on other work from Munday and Dixson  – 22 papers. Clark and Jutfelt have called for an inquiry by funding bodies and universities, but it seems that nothing has happened. The Science article contains allegations of fraud that will have to be properly answered. Some of it is very concerning.

But it is not just the Magnificent 7 who are questioning whether fraud was committed. Other scientists from Holland, Spain and the UK have pointed out inconsistencies and suspicious data. There is also now testimony from co-workers of Munday and Dixson, “some of whom monitored Dixson’s activities [in the lab] and concluded she made up data” according to Science

Predictably, the scientific “establishment” has attacked the whistleblowers and much of the Science article is devoted to this. Perhaps the most scandalous attack came from Hans-Otto Portner from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany who does not seem to believe hard questions should be asked. Portner, a co-chair of one of the IPCC’s working groups, stated that “building a career on judging what other people did is not right.”  Even worse, he apparently wanted to keep the scandal quiet and objected to the Magnificent 7’s work stating “if such a controversy gets outside of the community, it’s harmful because the whole community loses credibility.”

Presumably it is better to bury possible fraud than damage the reputation of their comfortable little science community.

The truth is a secondary concern.

Equally worrying is that none of the universities or science funding bodies seem to have bothered to do a proper investigation.

The Science article, by Martin Enserink, is long, thoroughly researched, but well worth the read. It shows how corrupted the scientific establishment, from the funding bodies to the journals, has become. But it also shows that there still are scientists who value the truth over all else – and will jeopardise their careers to find the truth.

It also shows that we need a formalised system for replicating important science results – especially if it is being used for public policy decisions. The present system of peer review, which is now well known to have, roughly, a 50% failure rate, is a pathetic apology for a quality assurance system.

In Australia, I have been advocating for an Office of Science Review that would fund the type of work that the Magnificent 7 took upon themselves – replication, checking, and testing of important scientific work. My interest is the Great Barrier Reef. I believe much of the work claiming damage to the Reef has serious flaws. But most importantly, almost none of it has been subjected to rigorous replication or checking.

It is time that the science organisations stop pretending there are no quality problems. This denial of the quality assurance problems is far worse than any possible fraud that may have been committed by individual scientists.

The major institutions are deceiving the public about the reliability of their work.

We are supposed to trust them but how can we?

Dr Peter Ridd —