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.
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.”