Australian University Unlawfully Sacked Scientist Who Challenged Views on Great Barrier Reef Research, Says Judge

A professor of physics has won a lawsuit against an Australian university after he was sacked from his job for criticising his colleagues’ research about the impacts of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.

Judge Salvatore Vasta ruled in the federal court on April 16 that James Cook University (JCU) in north Queensland had acted unlawfully against Dr. Peter Ridd.

Vasta agreed with Ridd that he had been unfairly dismissed from his job at JCU and that the university had not fully respected Ridd’s academic freedom, according to court documents.

Ridd told the ABC that he was “very happy” with the outcome of the case. He called for JCU’s governing body to call vice-chancellor Sandra Harding to account for the legal loss.

“The case started about my comments about the quality of some of the Great Barrier Reef science … and it sort of ended up in an academic freedom case,” he said.

“I’m not saying that all the science is wrong—I’m just saying because there isn’t enough checking, testing, and replicating of that science it’s difficult to know what is right and wrong.”

In a statement to the federal court, Ridd’s legal team said that the university had “taken disciplinary action against the applicant because he has a different scientific view to JCU or its stakeholders.”

The university issued Ridd its first formal censure for “misconduct” starting in April 2016 when it found that he had emailed a journalist. In the emails, Ridd said that he thought that some photographs released by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority showing a decline in reef health was “misleading,” as his own research and observations by tourist operations have shown.

The photographs are “a dramatic example of how scientific organisations are quite happy to spin a story for their own purposes,” Ridd said.

He said the authority and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, both of which have offices based at JCU, “should check their facts before they spin their story … my guess is that they will both wiggle and squirm because they actually know that these pictures are likely to be telling a misleading story.”

The university said Ridd had breached the code of conduct by “going to the media in your professional capacity in a way that was not collegial and did not respect the rights of others or uphold professional standards.”

In November 2017, JCU said that Ridd was guilty of “serious misconduct” and failing to act in a collegial manner just months after Ridd published an essay in an Institute of Public Affairs book Climate Change: The Facts 2017 and made statements about his writings on national television.

Ridd claimed on Sky TV that Australians could “no longer trust” the findings of the nation’s key marine science organisations regarding the impact of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.

“This bad science is affecting every major industry in North Queensland … they must be brought to account, and that essentially is what I’m trying to do, and I don’t care what the consequences to me personally are,” Ridd said at the time.

Ridd had also raised concerns that people would “laugh” at what the peer review process involved, saying that it’s usually a few scientists reading the paper like a subeditor rather than a group of researchers rigorously retesting the science, local media reported.

Ridd was eventually sacked in May 2018, a few months after he announced he was challenging the university’s findings against him in court. Ridd raised $260,000 in five days through a crowdfunding campaign to cover the legal costs of his case.

JCU released a statement saying that Ridd’s academic freedoms had “never been at issue,” maintaining that Ridd had repeatedly breached the university’s code of conduct despite multiple warnings.

“The university has not objected to Professor Ridd’s right to comment on quality assurance. However, the university has objected to the manner in which he has done this,” Gordon said in a statement.

“He has sensationalised his comments to attract attention, has criticised and denigrated published work, and has demonstrated a lack of respect for his colleagues and institutions in doing so,” the university said in a statement.

Andrew Bonnell, vice-president of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), told the ABC it was clear that the university had breached its commitment to academic freedom.

“Even if someone is saying something unpopular, if you have a scientist or other academic speaking—especially on the matter related to their expertise—then they have a right to represent unpopular opinions, even if some people find it annoying,” he said.

JCU Response

In a statement to the ABC, JCU Provost Professor Chris Cocklin said the university disagreed with the judge’s ruling.

“We maintain we have not taken issue with Dr. Ridd’s, nor any other employee’s, rights to academic freedom,” the statement said.

It also said that the university was now “considering its options.”

“[We] are also troubled by the fact that he fails to refer to any legal precedent or case law in Australia to support his interpretation of our enterprise agreement, or academic freedom in Australian employment law.”

A penalty hearing for JCU looks to be set for June 9.

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Author: Melanie Sun