The Unfolding Saga Of Peter Ridd

  • Date: 24/05/18
  • Don Aitkin

What is happening at James Cook University is deeply disturbing to those who value freedom of speech and justified criticism. As Popper reminds us, we learn through disagreement.

I have written a couple of times about Peter Ridd, here and here. Professor Ridd, a well-published academic whose fields of research include coastal oceanography, reef systems and peer review, has been for ten years the Head of the School of Physics at James Cook University (JCU). When he drew attention to what he saw as exaggerations in the way fellow academics at his university were describing the condition of the Great Barrier Reef he was ‘disciplined’ by JCU, told that he was being uncollegial, and that if he did it again he would be charged with serious misconduct. He subsequently wrote to me about this matter, and that email was seen by the University to be a further sign of misconduct. Professor Ridd decided that he had enough, and launched a legal suit against the University, claiming conflict of interest and bias. The conflict of interest might arise because the Vice-Chancellor of the University is also a director of the Australian Institute for Marine Science, some of whose work Professor Ridd had criticised. He has since withdrawn that part of his suit addressing possible bias on the part of the Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Professor Ridd has now been sacked. Not many professors in Australian universities have ever been fired, and sacking should require some extraordinary misbehaviour on the part of the professor. Professor Ridd is not accepting his sacking quietly, and has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars within a week through crowd-funding. There is going to be a court case.

This is a sad event in Australian higher education, for all sorts of reasons, and at its heart is the working of a new and most important engine in academe. In 1990 I gave an address in England, subsequently published in both the UK and Australia, deploring the extent to which research had become the be-all and end-all of appointment, promotion and honour in our universities. That trend has continued, despite the awards for good teaching, which did not exist when I gave that address.

The engine works this way. There is strong pressure on all academics to bring in research grant money for the department, the faculty and university. Those who do it well find their careers advancing quickly. To assist them there are media sections in universities whose job it is to frame the research work of academics in a way that will gain the attention of the media. Such media releases will come with as arresting a headline as the media section can devise. Buzzwords like ‘breakthrough’, ‘crucial’, ‘cutting edge’ and ‘revolution’ will be used. If possible, the staff members will appear on television, with the accompaniment of familiar stock images of laboratories and machines. The staff members will also be aware (or made aware) of the opportunity they have to advance their careers and names through writing another version of their published journal article for The Conversation, a website in which academics can write in more accessible language for an inquiring lay readership. Free from the requirements of journal house-rules, the staff members will be able to lard up their findings, call for urgency in funding and, where that is apposite, demand political attention. The output of the engine is heightened recognition of the name of the university, the academics and their area, and of course the likely prospect of more research money. All those in the engine-room think that they are just doing their jobs. The engine did not exist thirty years ago.

None of this is much of a problem in the more recondite areas of academic research, string theory in physics, for example, or advanced econometrics in the social sciences. But it is a problem, and a rapidly growing one, in areas of research where what is actually the case is contested vigorously by others. An eye has to be kept on the source of the money going to higher education research, which in our country is overwhelmingly the Australian Government. In 2014, not quite four billion dollars was available within the higher education system for research, all of it from the Commonwealth. In addition universities made another billion or thereabouts from consultancy and research for other funders. That is a lot of money. As the last Chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee in 1987 I had a little over $30 million to parcel out. The engine has been most effective.

In the last forty years governments have become interested in universities’ finding academic support for what they are proposing or have in place. We are in an era of ‘policy-based evidence’. We are also in an era of a particular political correctness, where it is very difficult indeed to get funds for research if the purpose of the research seems antithetical to current government policy.

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