The controversial scientist was sacked by JCU in 2018 after being censured for allegedly breaching the University’s code of conduct.
Among JCU’s grievances were that Dr Ridd had publicly criticised the work of colleagues, including telling Sky News in 2017 that “scientific organisations like the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies can no longer be trusted”.
Dr Ridd’s controversial views also include that poor water quality and climate change aren’t significant threats to the future of the reef.
But Judge Salvatore Vasta ruled in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia last week that the University’s sacking of Dr Ridd was unlawful, and that JCU had “not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom” in respect to their enterprise bargaining agreement.
Dr Ridd’s supporters were quick to claim the win for academic freedom and freedom of speech. And before long some were equating the court victory to a win for climate-change scepticism.
However, Dr Ridd’s views on the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef were not on trial in this case.
The decision was confined to his industrial rights and the judge made no comment on the validity of his climate views.
What makes a ‘reef expert’?
After over two decades spent researching marine physics in the Great Barrier Reef region, Dr Ridd’s scientific expertise cannot be disregarded.
He pioneered research techniques for studying marine sedimentology, and has published widely on coastal oceanography and the effects of sediments on coral reefs.
Dr Ridd is respected in this field despite some differences in opinion about his results — which is standard in all fields of science, according to marine scientist Jon Brodie from the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
However, Dr Ridd’s comments on the overall health of the reef, and his harsh criticism of coral-bleaching science, have caused many scientists to question the limits of his expertise.
Dr Ridd has previously claimed that the Great Barrier Reef is healthy and that studies published by the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville about coral bleaching are inaccurate.
In response to questions about his authority as a Great Barrier Reef expert, Dr Ridd told the ABC that his experience living and working as a scientist on the reef for over 30 years qualifies him to make these comments.
“All the so-called threats to the reef are based on physical processes,” Dr Ridd said.
“I can draw conclusions from [biology-based] papers in the same way as a biologist can do that to my papers which are physics-based.
“To say I’m not qualified to comment because I’m a physicist… what sort of argument is that?”
It is true that any scientist working on the reef has to have a basic understanding of reef processes outside of their direct field of research.
However, to argue publicly that the Great Barrier Reef is “one of the best preserved ecosystems in the whole world” needs to be backed by very solid evidence, especially when it flies in the face of strong scientific consensus.