Comprehensive reef protection plan could begin with Science Ombudsman

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On Line Opinion 14th June, 2016

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has just announced a $1 billion plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef. He describes the plan as the "largest ever" financial investment in the reef, and as a "comprehensive plan". But Graham Lloyd was reporting in the Weekend Australian that there are major problems with quality assurance when it comes to scientific research concerning the Great Barrier Reef.

If Peter Ridd, a professor at James Cook University, risks being disciplined simply for querying the veracity of claims regarding damage to individual coral reefs, how can Mr Turnbull be sure that this new fund is targeting real priority issues?

Water quality has been identified as a key issue, with runoff from agriculture needing to be curtailed. But a decade ago, when I was a member of a high level Queensland Government Reef Protection Taskforce, the evidence for any impact from agriculture on the reef was wanting. Sure, there was evidence of grazing and sugarcane having an impact on the water quality in adjacent rivers and streams, but not on corals.

That taskforce was formed by the Queensland government in response to a campaign launched on World Environment day in 2001 by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). In the first year, the campaign targeted the fishing industry claiming it was the greatest threat to the reef. In the second year, sugarcane farming was identified as the greatest threat to the reef.

I was the sugar industry representative on the Taskforce, and in order to bring my industry onboard, I wanted to be able to show the Canegrowers Ltd Board the best evidence that we were impacting the reef. The science representative on the Taskforce, Christian Roth, was tasked with coordinating the development of a science statement in consultation with experts at the CRC Reef Research Centre, the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, and James Cook University.

The first 3-page science statement was developed for the Taskforce to provide a "consolidated view of our current understanding of the impacts of terrestrial run-off on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area". This document presented to the Taskforce on the 12 November 2001 discussed threats to the reef, but provided no reference of actual damage to the reef.

Several Taskforce members noted this fact, with the following comments being made by Taskforce members at that meeting:

'So the widespread impact (of terrestrial run-off on the Great Barrier Reef) is not substantiated.'

'Let's put the anecdotal data together as a science paper.'

'But the scientists have tried very hard to prove there is an impact.'

'Let's not get hung up on the science.'

'Let's go forward on the basis of the precautionary principle.'

'Let's bring science along with a balanced view from other things.'

'This document (the science statement) has been written for this Taskforce and should not go to Cabinet.'

It is easy for science to be bulldozed by politics. Indeed, the final scientific statement, eventually endorsed by the taskforce, claimed an impact from agriculture on the Great Barrier Reef even though there was no evidence ever provided to support this claim.

A decade ago, there were newspaper headlines claiming dugongs were being killed by a dioxin, which was from pesticide runoff from sugarcane farms. Two years later, the National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology concluded that the dioxin of concern was naturally occurring and common in soils along the entire Queensland coastline, including in regions beyond sugarcane cultivation. Yet even after this clarification and after the information had been passed on to senior bureaucrats, the false claim of elevated levels of fat-soluble pesticides in dugongs was repeated in their influential briefing papers and reports.

Professor Ridd has suggested that the solution is the establishment of an independent agency to check the science before governments commit to spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

This could perhaps begin with the establishment of a science ombudsman with the resources to investigate and attempt to resolve complaints about scientific integrity and freedom. The exact role of the Ombudsman would be defined by a constitution, and in the first instance might be restricted to the investigation of universities.

It is university research which has precipitated the massive investment, ostensibly in actions that will result in actual reef protection. As Universities are federally funded the establishment of such an office by Mr Turnbull could be seen as prudent, especially if he intends to make such a massive investment in practical measures that will result in reef protection. Indeed, such an office could be established with an investment of less than $ 2 million, less than 0.2 percent of the new $1 billion announcement.

Professor Ridd would be the perfect candidate for such a position, he understands science and the need for organized skepticism.