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The power of grant money

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 31 January 2018


I have been reading an excellent book by Stuart Macintyre and others (No End of a Lesson, Melbourne University Press, 2017) about the 'Dawkins revolution' and what happened in the ten years after it. Throughout that period I was at first part of the group making the changes, and then, as Vice-Chancellor, someone who had to cope with them. My own Critical Mass really stops in 1991, when I went from the Australian Research Council to the University of Canberra. Reading No End of a Lesson brought back so many memories of life after the ARC, and indeed during its formation.

One important memory was the way in which universities became fixated (if they were not so already) by the importance of getting research grant money, notwithstanding that there were other most important functions that universities performed. As I pointed out in a speech in the UK in 1990, research had already become the mark of status, not just for academics, but also for universities, and was dominating appointments and promotion. The more research you did, the 'better' you were. And the easiest, but quite flawed, way of measuring research excellence was to see how much money an individual academic had 'brought in' to the University. From the 1990s onwards research money has been the token of excellence, and woe betide those who don't do their bit or, worse, impede those who might be trying to do so.

I have mentioned this shift in perspective in the past with reference to the late Professor Bob Carter, who was ousted from a position of honour at his university because he criticised aspects of the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) movement that has infected Western society in the past thirty years. I can readily imagine the ways in which deans would argue to the vice-chancellor: 'Here we are trying to get decent amounts for global warming studies, and here's this retired professor making waves denying the importance of what we do!' No young and aspiring scientist would want to cause waves of this kind when there is so much pressure to bring in grant money - and there's a lot of it about for global warming, and trips overseas, and important conferences to attend, and government committees to inspire. Carter was a retired emeritus, and then banished from the university, which meant a loss of library privileges.

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Well, the pressure to conform is happening again, and at Bob Carter's old university, James Cook University in Townsville. This time the proposed villain is a professor of physics, Peter Ridd, whose interests include coastal oceanography, the effects of sediments upon coral reefs, past and future climates and atmospheric modelling. I have met Peter Ridd, and I know something about his work. He has been head of the Department of Physics for ten years. His intellectual reach is wider than my short summary here, but I have put in what gives him some status in the world of global warming.

He has been in the news before, drawing attention to the need to change the peer review system, and to what he sees as exaggerated claims about the dangers that threaten the Great Barrier Reef, alleging that scientists or spokespeople for scientific organisations like the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and government organisations like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) were not behaving in a scientifically scrupulous way in announcing new claims and about danger. He was not alone in saying these things. The chairman of GBRMPA himself protested that headlines saying that '93 per cent of the reef is practically dead' or that 35 per cent or even 50 per cent of the entire reef is now gone' were rubbish. A former chairman said that 'environmentalist were 'exaggerating the impact of coral bleaching for political and financial gain'. Ridd said that a paper by JCU scientists foretelling the end of the reef was simply 'laughable'. Bleaching is a natural event, and occurred long before there was human activity anywhere near the reef. What is more, reefs recover, sometimes quite quickly.

Nonetheless, the university told him he was 'not displaying responsibility in respecting the reputations of other colleagues'. Do it again, he was told, and we'll try you for 'serious misconduct'. I've written about this before, and indeed the above is an introduction to the news that JCU indeed decided to discipline Professor Ridd, and started the process in late August last year. What for? The University's statement is that it was disturbed by Professor Ridd's comments on Sky news, to the effect that 'We can no longer trust the scientific organisations like the Australian Institute of marine Science, even things like the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies… The science is coming out not properly checked, tested or replicated, and this is a great shame.' Such statements, said the University, were 'not in the collegial and academic spirit of the search for knowledge, understanding and truth'. Further, his comments had denigrated AIMS and were 'not respectful and courteous'. In a letter tabled with the court, the University said that his comments could damage the reputation of AIMS and the University's relationships with it.

On this occasion, Professor Ridd decided he had had enough, and launched his own court case against the CEO, claiming conflict of interest, apprehended bias and actual bias. It happens that the University's Vice-Chancellor is a director of AIMS, which produces an obvious conflict of interest. The University then told Ridd he was not to 'disclose or discuss these matters with media or in any other public forum'. His lawyers pointed out that either the University was incompetent or it was guided by bias, which the University's lawyers denied.

Peter Ridd was kind enough to write to me about the alleged misconduct involved in talking to the media about the misconduct allegation, and later alerted me to the fact that there was deemed to be further misconduct involved in writing to me! I wish him well in all of this, which is so unnecessary, and so inimical to the cause of scholarship, argument and the advancement of knowledge.

I can appreciate the dilemma facing the Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University, for there is no doubt that research grant money is really important. I have to say that I did not have a comparable problem in my eleven years in the role, despite the pressure on everyone to get grant money if they could. Nonetheless, there is no doubt where I think the right is. A scientist who says that other people's work is flawed has to show cause. In the case of the Great Barrier Reef that is not hard to do. There has been a lot of loud noise based on small pieces of work. It is not widely understood that the Reef is a vast system, and that it is not closely monitored. You would need hundreds, thousands, of researchers and assistants to do that. And there are lots of natural and cyclic causes for changes to the Reef's coral. These events have happened before, and they will happen again. The correct response from those he has criticised is to respond in the proper way, show that Ridd is wrong, and that their work can withstand his criticism.

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To the best of my knowledge that has not happened. Instead, Professor Ridd has been attacked in an ad hominem way. It seems to me utterly wrong for his own University to try to 'discipline' him so that he does not criticise others. That is not what science is about. It doesn't matter what relationships JCU has with AIMS. If the AIMS work is poor, or inflated claims have been made about the importance of its research, the University ought to be able to point that out, and suggest that better work ought to be done, or that claims should be more subdued.

Ah, but this is the Reef, an icon of the environmental movement. And there is a lot of money about for 'research' that is 'consistent' with the notion that doom is at hand. Like Professor Ridd, I think that the University has gone down utterly the wrong track, and the sooner it departs from it the better. As it happens, the book I referred to at the beginning of this essay, No End of a Lesson, gives instances of other high-handed behaviour from Vice-Chancellors. They are not emperors, and should never give the impression that they think they are.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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