Top marine scientists defend attack on Great Barrier Reef research | Environment

Scientists at Australia’s leading marine science agency say an attack on the integrity of their research into threats to the Great Barrier Reef was flawed and based on “misinterpretation” and “selective use of data”.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science (Aims) researchers were responding to accusations made in November 2017 in a journal Marine Pollution Bulletin that claimed much of their work “should be viewed with some doubt”.

In November Dr Piers Larcombe, an industry consultant affiliated with the University of Western Australia, and Prof Peter Ridd, of James Cook University in Queensland, claimed in a “Viewpoint” article that there was a lack of “quality control” in marine science.

The pair claimed to have identified flaws in nine scientific papers published between 2003 and 2013.

But in the response, led by Aims scientist Dr Britta Schaffelke, several of the criticised scientists write: “Given their sincere call to improve quality control processes in science, it is interesting that nowhere in their Viewpoint article do Larcombe and Ridd make it clear to readers that many of their criticisms of the nine GBR [Great Barrier Reef] papers have been raised previously and have been thoroughly addressed by the original authors.”

Schaffelke told Guardian Australia: “We wanted to set the record straight. We have laid out clearly where we disagree and how the initial findings still hold.”

In an emailed response to Guardian Australia, Larcombe and Ridd maintained their concerns and rejected the criticisms. “There is not enough effort to check, test and replicate much of the science upon which we base important public policy decisions. The GBR is just one example of this,” they said.

Larcombe and Ridd had criticised research showing that water quality in the reef, linked to run-off from farms, was having an adverse effect on corals and that, overall, the reef was in a state of decline.

The pair pointed to documented problems in reproducing scientific results in medical and biomedical sciences, and said this issue might exist in marine science. They also said that science backed by industry was more rigorous.

But responding to those claims, Schaffelke writes: “This, however, does not seem supported by the fact that two fields of science where major credibility problems have arisen are medicine and biomedical science, both with a considerable proportion of industry-funded research.”

The criticisms, Schaffelke wrote in the journal, were “based on misinterpretation, selective use of data and over-simplification”.

The article added: “A large body of research on the condition of the GBR by many scientists from various organisations consistently shows that the GBR is under pressure from past and ongoing human activities, that the pressure varies regionally, and that the GBR still retains some level of resilience.”

One of the journal’s chief editors, Dr Pat Hutchings, senior fellow at the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney, said Larcombe and Ridd would be offered the chance to write a final response to the Aims scientists in the journal, which the pair said they would take up.

Ridd is currently suing James Cook University after the Townsville-based institution accused him of serious misconduct over similar public attacks on Aims research and other work carried out at the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, also based at the university.

Ridd declined to comment on the status of his court action against JCU, except to say the case was “proceeding”.

According to documents published on a blog maintained by Ridd, the university had censured Ridd and then, later, said he had broken the university’s code of conduct.

Ridd had given an interview to Sky News program Jones and Co to promote a book published by the Institute of Public Affairs with contributions from several climate science deniers. Ridd had written a chapter, again claiming flaws in reef science.

Ridd’s claims about marine science and his legal action have been cheered in conservative media circles, including the far-right Breitbart. Ridd has written articles that have appeared on Fox News and in News Corp Australia outlets.

Canegrowers – a group representing the sugar cane industry in Queensland – has also highlighted Ridd’s work. In December 2017, one Canegrowers manager sent Ridd’s paper to several stakeholders, saying they should “feel free to distribute the paper widely”.

In a statement to Guardian Australia, a spokesperson clarified that Canegrowers “has made no allegations or claims about the science called into question by Peter Ridd”.

The Canegrowers chief executive, Dan Galligan, said the paper from Aims “offers a scientific view of the rigour around the science that was called into question in November”.

“Pleasingly, it acknowledges that everyone would like to see greater rigour and assurance in the science – on that, there appears to be agreement from all parties in this point,” Galligan said.