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Comprehensive reef protection plan could begin with Science Ombudsman

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Tuesday, 14 June 2016


'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.

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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.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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