Greater quality assurance needed in reef science, Dr Peter Ridd tells inquiry

James Nason, 28/07/2020

Scientist Dr Peter Ridd has become widely known in recent years for his outspoken views on the quality of science used to underpin new water quality controls on agriculture in the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

He has worked on the Great Barrier Reef since 1984 at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and at James Cook University (JCU), with his research appearing in over 100 publications in international journals mostly relating to Great Barrier Reef and marine applications.

Dr Peter Ridd

In 2018 he was fired by James Cook University after stating that the two GBR science institutions were producing results that are untrustworthy due to insufficient quality assurance protocols.

Last year the Federal Circuit Court of Australia found Dr Ridd’s sacking by JCU was unlawful and awarded him $1.2m. But that decision was overturned on appeal by the full bench of the Federal Circuit Court last week which found JCU had acted lawfully in dismissing Dr Ridd.

The case has become a lightning rod for debate in Australia over freedom of intellectual inquiry and freedom of speech.

Inquiry delves into evidence that underpins Qld reef regulations

Yesterday Dr Ridd appeared before a public hearing in Brisbane for a Senate Committee inquiry into the regulation of farm practices in Queensland impacting water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef.

The regulations affect cattle grazing, cane farming and dryland cropping business across 42.4 million hectares of Queensland and commit each industry to achieving minimum water quality targets by 2025 (See map right)

The Queensland Department of Science and Energy in its submission told the inquiry a large evidence-base exists demonstrating the impact of water quality from the adjacent, predominately agriculture areas, on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR).

“Summaries of the thousands of peer reviewed, published scientific papers that provide this supporting evidence have been periodically undertaken since 2003 with bipartisan support, as the underpinning evidence base for the joint Reef Water Quality Protection Plans, now Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan 2017-2022 developed in collaboration between the Australian and Queensland Governments.”

It adds that its reef science is proven, supported by rigorous processes including peer review, independent expert reviews and audits. “The evidence is strong, the science robust, and the conclusions drawn from the science are sound,” it says.

In his submission to the inquiry Dr Ridd maintains there is serious concern that much of the evidence claiming adverse effects of agriculture on the Great Barrier Reef “is highly questionable”.

He believes a full audit of the evidence relating to the potential effect of agriculture on the GBR should be carried out by a group of independent scientists not attached to government institutions working on the GBR.

Dr Ridd emphasises his independence, stating in his submission he has not received any salary from the oil, coal, sugar, beef or tobacco interests, despite being often accused of having done so.

His submission states that while he worked at JCU and AIMS, all of his salary and research funding was directed through those institutions, and he did not receive anything but his regular institutional salary.

Greater quality assurance needed in science

It notes that since his sacking from JCU in 2018 he is now working, without payment, to improve Quality Assurance systems in science.

Dr Ridd, who is a physicist, said science should be based on a higher standard of quality assurance than currently exists, referring to experts who have spoken more broadly about similar concerns with existing scientific standards around the world.

This included Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, who in 2015 wrote that “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness”.

A 2017 study in Britain suggested science is facing a “reproducibility crisis” where more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments.

Last year Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Alan Finkel lamented the “significant number of papers that are of poor quality, and should never have made it through to publication”.

Dr Ridd said the peer review system on its own is not adequate or effective. ‘Dissent, scepticism, replication, testing and checking’ were essential to science, but didn’t happen anywhere near as much as they should, he said.

“That is why I am suggesting we need some sort of extra quality assurance mechanism to check the reef science.

“And, I ask, why would you not want to do that?”

Scientific principles such as Newtons Law of Motion were “five-star science”, “something you can rely on with your life” because they had been “massively checked, tested and replicated.”

Peer review was closer to “two star science”, he said.

There was need to get the level of replication “as high as we can”.

In his 36-year-career of work in the Great Barrier Reef, Dr Ridd co-invented the first instruments capable of taking long-term measurements of sediment on the reef. His submission states his group “has done more measurements of sediment (mud) concentrations near reefs than any other group”.

During 30 minutes of questions from Senators yesterday he provided several examples of his concerns with existing scientific consensus on reef science.

While these are discussed in detail in his submission, some of the concerns he discussed included:

Coral growth rate data: Dr Ridd said he has raised concerns with the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) about its claim there has been a halving of GBR coral cover since the 1960s. He said this is “the only bit of data” that supposedly shows this halving of coral, but said AIMS has refused to release the original data so it can be scrutinised.

Sediment from farms on the reef: “If you look at sediments, there is no sediment out on the Great Barrier Reef. I can take you to the GBR, I’d love to take you to the GBR, you name the reef, and we will go there and I will demonstrate there is no sediment from farms on the great barrier reef. That is it, right, that is the data and that decides whether it is right or wrong.”

2017 Scientific Consensus Statement describing agriculture as the main pollutant in the reef: “In my view there is no proof that agriculture has any significant effect on the reef whatsoever,” Dr Ridd said. He said agricultural pesticides were “in such low concentrations” that on 97 percent of the GBR “they don’t even bother measuring it, because the concentrations are so low”. He said concentrations of pesticides in shore and in the rivers and wetlands “can undoubtedly get to high levels”. Hoewever, he said, “all the measurements except for one on the round top island on the mouth of the Pioneer River, except for that one example, there have been no measurements on the GBR of pesticides that reach anywhere near a harmful level, so we know that pesticides are not damaging the coral.”

Fertiliser produces algal blooms: “The farmers are accused of all the fertiliser producing algal blooms, but what is ignored and you won’t see it in the consensus statement is that there is 100 times more nutrients that cycle across the seabed than comes down all the rivers in total, so it is a drop in the bucket the effect of the farmers on the GBR. Now that is not my work, that is by Miles Furness from the AIMS. 20 years of his life was devoted ultimately to that conclusion.”

Cyclone impacts: “A cyclone like cyclone Yasi probably re-suspended 500 million cubic metres of mud, this is hundreds of times more than what is going to come down from the rivers….  Cyclones kill more coral than anything else, they will resuspend a layer of sediment up to 30cm deep 100km across and 50km wide, they’re like bulldozers that go through.”

Muddy bottom reefs: Questioned by Qld LNP Senator Gerard Rennick about “muddy bottom reefs”, Dr Ridd said these are specifically to do with inshore reefs. “We have a huge number of measurements on the muddy reef, we know from the geological evidence that these have been muddy for thousands of years because the mud around them has been laid down by rivers over thousands of years…  the scientists talk about these inshore reefs and they never tell the public we’re only talking about a very small fraction of the coral that are even muddy at all.”

40-50 percent coral loss across the entire reef: LNP Senator Susan McDonald said evidence given earlier in the morning referred to “40-50pc coral loss across the entire reef”. Dr Ridd said that referred to a 2016-17 bleaching event. “In those surveys, they have largely done very shallow corals. They have totally ignored the deep coral. The last data I saw on that was about 33pc was lost in this very shallow area, 0-2 metres deep. The coral goes down to 50m deep. The surveys on the deep coral show almost zero loss of coral from bleaching which is what you would expect, and therefore when you aggregated it there was probably an 8pc reduction if you look at the whole thing.

“Now an 8pc reduction in coral still sounds serious, but when you consider there was a 250pc increase in coral between 2011 when a huge cyclone wiped out most of the southern area of the reef, and 2016, an 8pc decrease is not much, it will recover from that within a few years.”

Is coral on the GBR dying? Asked by Senator Rennick if, in his opinion as someone who had spent his life examining the GBR, coral on the GBR is dying, Dr Ridd said he did not believe it was. “I don’t think there is any evidence that it is dying,” he said. “I have a slight reservation about the direct effect of carbon dioxide on ocean acidification. The slight change there is some evidence that they may cause some problems, that does concern me.

“But the actual data on coral calcification, shows if anything an increase in coral calcification, and there is no data that suggests the coral cover is reducing. It fluctuates massively, and there has been a reduction in 2016-17, but it is basically the same as it was when records began.”

‘I never accuse scientists of doing things for the wrong thing reason’

Questioned by One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts as to what can drive distortions of science, Dr Ridd went to lengths to explain his view that “there is no conspiracy”.

“I never accuse scientists of doing things for the wrong thing reason, I think they genuinely believe.. All of the marine scientists that I know who disagree with me, they believe, they are not doing it fraudulently or anything like that, but they come to what I believe are often the wrong conclusions, sometimes because they are very emotional about the reef, but essentially because there aren’t the proper quality assurance systems.”

Science driving regulations must be held to higher standards

Dr Ridd said that if the science was wrong, farmers will pay for it, and then people in the city.

“You know the fact is, the new regulations, even the old regulations, are putting costs up for the farmers,” he said.

“Alright, that is not my business, I am a scientist, I am just saying that before you go ahead and do that, you really just need to check the science to make sure it is fair dinkum and we have actually got it as correct as it should be.”

Dr Ridd acknowledged he was “in the minority” on the question of whether or not the reef is being damaged by farms.

However, he said he was not in the minority when talking about quality assurance problems with science.

“I am in the majority, I am with the mainstream, when we talk about there is a quality assurance problem in science,” he said.

“So what I am suggesting is that we need some sort of body which takes a piece of information, ie AIMS coral growth rate data, and actually subjects it to real scrutiny and actually does the experiments again and see whether we can get the same result and then we can have a look at that and see how we go.

“And by having some sort of quality assurance system just like auditors in financial systems, what it would do is it would make the scientists be much more careful about the work they produce.”

‘Why do you keep going?’

Given his stances on reef science “have come at enormous personal cost, both to his reputation and financially”, LNP Senator Susan McDonald asked Dr Ridd, why did he keep going?

“Wouldn’t it be easier to go home?” she asked.

“Because I get very grumpy when I see stuff that is wrong,” he replied.

“That is what made me 15 years ago start this quality assurance work, I could see stuff that is just not right.

“My own work was being misquoted or ignored.  Not just mine, peers, my whole group, was being ignored.

“This whole, you know, our work has been totally ignored, you just go on and on and you don’t like to see that. Eventually you say something and bad things happen.

“Anyway… I just go on, I can’t say why.”

Being in a significant minority

Dr Ridd said he understood that being in the ‘significant minority’ would mean people would believe he was wrong.

“And you know I have been wrong on so many things on my life, I am sure that some of the things I have written down in that report are wrong.

“But the basic question ‘is there enough quality assurance’, I am certain that is not wrong.

“I am not asking you to believe everything that I have said on a scientific basis, but I think there is more than enough evidence to say we need to do a bit better checking than what it is going on.

“That is really the most important thing of my submission.”

‘We cannot have Caesar judging Caesar’

He told the senators that if independent authority was established to check reef science, it was essential it be truly independent.

“Such an organisation, if it was captured by the primary science organisation, would be Caesar judging Caesar and would be an absolute disaster.

“That is why I think if it is done it needs to be run through the audit office, you need to have people who understand what happens when the consensus group takes over, and excludes the other group and great care would have to be taken.

“But it would have the effect that scientists would be much more careful about making statements and publishing results where there was a likelihood they haven’t been careful, as careful as they should have been.”


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  1. Michael Kiap, 03/08/2020

    Dr. Peter Ridd is correct about the need and practice of QA in Science. Degree of Environmental impacts is becoming lesser science and more and mere rhetorics, activitist views and politics.

    Sad to learn of his termination by the JCU. Peter and his twin brother Michael are true Environmental Scientists.

    Michael Kiap

  2. Wayne Morellini, 31/07/2020

    Dr Ridd has made a number of useful observations.

    When I was younger, I used to regularly read the New Scientist magazine’s summary like article on current research topics and debate in them. I was shocked at how often the conclusions, and debate, were poor and did not taken into account various possible mechanisms and alternative explanations. I used to constantly annotate what was wrong with the conclusions and logic in each article, and there tended to be a lot. I do accuse them of having opinions their way to suit their beliefs. Populous skeptics being one of the worst naive groups, tending towards ambitions of dismissiveness, as useful to intelligence as a hole in the head. Like the scientist that ranted on Australian mid day TV at another person “Satan, Satan, Satan…” But, I do find that scientists are biased towards the status quo and what they are willing to accept. Pretty much over 99% of the population have problems with thinking aswell. That populous things like climate change, are not necessarily wrong.

    Dr Ridd, should look into the effects of tens of thousands of domestic and industrial chemicals have on the reef and algae blooms. Particularly, the rise and dissappearence of some sort of Dawn dishwashing liquid formula that came and disappeared at the same time as the blue green algae blooms came and disappeared.

    But, there are things quoted from his statement here I would question. I have seen pictures of inshore reefs which disappeared. He might not be able to show people reefs covered by silt, but there has been ones killed off or burried. But, that is the past, the only question is how much worse csn it get.

    There does not need to be mud on corals to affect them. Silt can effect it’s local environment and cause nick on effects going into reefs. But, also, finer and lighter materials can remain which could reach the reef area and indirectly or directly affect coral. But, much of the coral is in areas with little farming.

    On acidification of the ocean, he should also consider the ocean conveyor belt and the industrial revolution.

    I should also say, governments should also pay handsomely for requirements forced on farmers. But of course they don’t, that is another court case.

  3. Lloyd Gamble, 29/07/2020

    I have spoken to Dr Ridd about his testing on the Gladstone dredging and asked him why testing for the chemical 2,3,7,8,TCDD was never carried out. He explained the whole thing very well. We could both see that the science had been directed away from testing for this chemical for some reason.

    I then asked him to check what other testing was avoiding this baseline chemical on the GBR. He advised me that none of the testing he could see contained testing for 2,3,7,8,TCDD. When I advised him of the extreme contamination of this chemical throughout Qld from the Impure 2,4,-D that the Government had wrongly Regulated for the last Sixty years we both realised how inaccurate the science was. It is missing the baseline chemical that has caused any damage.

    This means that almost all of the science ever done on the GBR in the last Sixty years since 1958 is wrong or could be a different result if the baseline chemical had of been known. We have had a bioaccumulative deadly chemical building in our rivers and dams and being dumped into the ocean from the Sewerage Ocean outfalls throughout the State and none of it has ever been tested. UQ has failed that badly they had to shut the Entox unit down, the Head Professor retired and a new group had to be formed to try and pick up the pieces. They were responsible for the testing and failed. That has corrupted the science on the GBR.

    All of that could of been avoided if there was a quality control on the Environmental testing that included the chemical the catchment areas have been contaminated with. At the moment there is nothing. The Uni’s just make up what they want and the Government supports them. Science in Australia has lost tremendous amounts of credibility from the Universities making up the science for a particular Government ideology without any credibility checks.

    It has become out of control and is a major Health impact on the Nation. We have UQ trying to bring the 2,3,7,8,TCDD contamination to light gently by advising that almost every river in Qld is contaminated with Pesticide and is much worse than they thought and at the same time we have the LNP that also have to address this contamination proposing to build a $10B Dam on these same rivers. They are fully aware this chemical is responsible for the draining of Paradise Dam and yet propose another one.

    I feel sorry for Dr Ridd and any other Scientists that have to try and keep credibility through this minefield of deception. The Science has become Political instead of credible so has lost all value to the person issuing it. There should be a Royal Commission into what has happened with the poor science used in Australia for the last Sixty years that is impacting our Children and families Health. Dr Ridd has my full support at questioning the science being used to falsify outcomes without the baseline chemical.
    There must be an Independent Authority set up to monitor Empirical Science that is used and Published.

    Thank you for your tireless support of correct science being used in this State Dr Ridd. Behind you 100%….

  4. Michael Cunningham, 29/07/2020

    I’ve met Peter Ridd, I’ve read some of his work and I’ve seen videos of the Reef which he made with Jennier Marohasy. I’m also a former economic policy adviser to PMs of the UK and Australia and to Queensland Premiers and Treasurers. I fully support what Ridd says, and know the pressures to conform to whatever line the Queensland ALP wants to pursue. My own career was ended because, a high level supporter told me, Queensland Treasury et al felt threatened by my “honesty, integrity, intellect and analytical rigour” – exactly as has happened to Peter Ridd.

  5. Andy Espersen, 29/07/2020

    Really independent peer assessment of all scientific theories and claims is of vital importance. But so many scientific papers are written these days, so many scientific opinions are released to the media that it is physically impossible to properly peer-assess them all. Peter Ridd is absolutely correct in his statement that there is not enough quality assurance in today’s society.

  6. Paul Franks, 28/07/2020

    Environmental science is so complex that you could make the science fit any narrative you want. The reef laws are totally political in nature. Graziers in general do not vote Labor and the sort of swinging voter that might vote Labor are totally insulated from any repercussions these laws will have to those who have to abide by them. In Queensland the Labor government gets the jack boots out for any group that can be stomped on for advantageous political purposes, and since Queensland has no senate, any laws the sitting government wants to pass, will pass.

    In saying that, there are plenty of graziers out there who hate grass as they always seem to have no ground cover.

  7. Tim Burrow, 28/07/2020

    It’s only scientific if you can “repeat the experiment over and over and get the same answer”, otherwise it’s just a guess.

    • Wayne Morellini, 31/07/2020

      That’s not always easy, and non repetition has been wrongly used as proof of invalidity.

      To do experiments can require hundreds of things to be done in a precise way to replicate, but humans tend to squint and have a go, and then pronounce their failure to replicate as proof the other person couldn’t have succeeded. It’s a more advanced version of that

    • Katrina Paine, 28/07/2020

      It seems that not only the repetition of results, but also the genuine desire to confirm a result beyond doubt, has been lacking in much of the research conducted.

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