Third World Science with First World Funding
Is James Cook University a grants machine or a research institute?
James Cook University reviews ex-student’s ‘fishy’ findings, by Graham Lloyd, The Australian
Oona Lönnstedt has been prolific, writing alarming papers on microplastics, acidification, and reef degradation. But her work looks like a trainwreck. One paper has been withdrawn, in another it was “found that Lonnstedt did not have time to undertake the research she claimed.” She’s been found guilty of fabricating data on the microplastics study. Now Peter Ridd has pointed out that the photos of 50 Lionfish appear to contain a lot less than 50 fish. Images have been flipped, spun or “manipulated” so the same fish appears more than once.
James Cook has done what any ambitious, money-hungry grant troughing institute would do, a very slow investigation of allegedly corrupt behaviour and a very quick sacking of the honest researcher who threatens to expose them. Any respectable Science Minister would freeze all grants to James Cook until this situation was resolved and reversed.
All Peter Ridd had to to was line up the shots in order they were taken. Peer reviewers didn’t do that.
The real problem here is not about fish or plastic but about the science industry
Walter Stark, a marine scientist with 50 years experience, and a proper skeptical scientist, explains how our current academic ecosystem rewards alarming results:
Starck says generations of researchers have been schooled in a culture wherein threats to the Great Barrier Reef are an unquestionable belief from which all evidence is interpreted.
“She (Lonnstedt) got into the ocean acidification and global warming and the effect CO2 was going to have on the behaviour of marine animals and she started publishing,” Starck says.
“Immediately the publishers lapped it up. As a graduate student she managed to get as much published in one year as most professors do in a decade.”
Imagine, hypothetically, that our academic grant machine was actively promoting the fakest science anyone can get away with when it comes to climate research. Where are the brakes? What stops fake science?
Not peer review. Not journal corrections. Not most of the media. (Where is the ABC? They report the alarm, but not the allegations?)
Confirmation bias is a much bigger problem and much harder to spot than fabricated data. Who is even trying to put those brakes on?
There’s a pattern here
Lönnstedt first got into trouble with a 2016 paper on microplastics that showed that little fish ate tiny bits of plastics preferentially, and then their growth suffered and they were eaten by bigger fish. The Central Ethical Review Board in Sweden investigated was so concerned and declared it was research misconduct. UU’s Board for Investigation of Misconduct in Research called it fabrication. That paper was published in one of the two highest profile science journals there is — called Science. So much for peer review at top journals? The microplastics case has been called “outright fraud” and by Science itself.
When Science demanded the data (that she should have archived) alas the only copy was on her laptop, which was stolen just after the request came through. How in-convenient?
No data? Doesn’t matter
It still took months before Science responded:
Dr Roche told the HES that Science should have retracted the report as soon as the authors failed to provide the raw data, “rather than waiting for the results of a lengthy investigation that only came months later”. But it was a “positive sign” that Science had published a letter criticising its policy, he conceded.
Peter Ridd wonders why we give still her the benefit of the doubt?
Ridd said given that Lonnstedt had been shown to have deficient data in other research, and given that there seemed to be evidence of modified images, it would not be wise to give the benefit of the doubt in this case.
Ridd contacted the co-authors of the lion fish study and the weak excuses flowed forth:
“Based on our understanding, it was not her intent for the collage to represent a picture of all of the lionfish she used,” they said. Rather, she was providing it as evidence “that she had lionfish in the laboratory”, the co-authors said.
Yes, sure. Because we were wondering if she had any Lionfish at all, not whether her 50 Lionfish were 50 different fish.
Her co-author Doug Chivers says there is now a dilemma because Lonnstedt has gone off to Sweden and isn’t doing science anymore and doesn’t want to answer questions. Jo Nova says this is pretty simple, tell her she can pay back her salary or respond in full. She was paid to reveal all her methods and data. She hasn’t finished the job yet.
As I said about James Cook Uni’s treatment of Peter Ridd:
This taints all research the institution puts out. How do we know that any news they announce is the whole truth — we must assume every result is put through the political filter and inconvenient conclusions or implications are removed.
Which other employees of James Cook are concerned about this issue? If they don’t say, is it because none of them care or that those who do feel too intimidated to say so. (Since they are too scared to even use their official email accounts, we can assume they won’t be issuing press releases.) Either way, it’s systemic, it’s institutional and it’s not science.
A biology journal is investigating concerns about a 2014 paper by a marine biologist who was found guilty of misconduct last year.
In December, Uppsala University concluded that Oona Lönnstedt had “fabricated the results” of a controversial 2016 Science paper(now retracted), which examined the harms of human pollution on fish. (Lönnstedt’s supervisor Peter Eklöv was also found guilty of misconduct and had a four-year government grant terminated.)
ScienceMag says that “Lönnstedt has reportedly lost her funding from Formas, the Swedish Research Council, as a result of the report. “
JCU takes a whole year to form an investigation panel
James Cook says they are “committed to the highest standards of ethical research”. Concerns over Lonnstedt’s work were raised over a year ago in December 2017. It took until May for JCU to say it would establish an external panel of experts to investigate. And after a whole year they’ve managed to finalize the member list of that panel, though they haven’t even been formally appointed yet. Apparently the Great Barrier Reef may move before the investigation is finished. The Reef is under a dire threat but JCU is in no rush to get the science right. Or perhaps they are just waiting until there is a new Minister of Science who also thinks that science is just a grants-machine to produce PR excuses to screw more tax out of taxpayers?
Speaking of which, the Shadow Minister for Science is the Hon. Kim Carr. Is he going to point out that Karen Andrews isn’t doing enough on this, or does he approve of Fake Science? Contact: senator.carr AT aph.gov.au
Likewise, the shadow Minister for Climate is The Hon. Mark Butler MP: Does he care that we may be wasting money fighting irrelevant battles based on dodgy research? Contact: senator.butler AT aph.gov.au. If the climate matters, so does climate science.
James Cook University is a joke, and if they were serious about showing they care about ethical and rigorous research they would reinstate Ridd immediately and finish the investigation fast. Anything less is “business as usual” at JCU. Fake science.
The Lonnstedt investigation hasn’t been done yet. But if she cares about the reef, and JCU cares about science, she needs to explain herself, asap.
PS: I do hope people write to the politicians. As always, please be polite, no matter how angry and frustrated you may be. Please copy letters into comments as it may help others.
hat tip to John of Cloverdale, Scarper, Barry Woods, Steve Hyland and Pat.