Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Sacked climate sceptic loses High Court case

The amazing thing about this verdict is that the court agreed it is wrong to criticize your colleagues. How could science progress without disagreements? Criticisms are the springboard to new knowledge

A marine physicist sacked after challenging his colleague’s views on climate change and the Great Barrier Reef, along with the university’s attempts to discipline him, has lost his High Court battle against James Cook University in a mixed decision for academic freedom.

Peter Ridd had been a long-serving professor at the university when he was fired in 2018 after forming the view that the scientific consensus on climate change overstated the risk it posed to the reef and vigorously arguing that position.

He took a parting shot at the university as he informed his supporters “with a heavy heart” on Wednesday that the High Court had dismissed his appeal over his sacking.

“So JCU actions were technically legal. But it was, in my opinion, never right, proper, decent, moral or in line with public expectations of how a university should behave,” he said in a statement posted to Facebook.

“It has cost me my job, my career, over $300K in legal fees, and more than a few grey hairs. All I can say is that I hope I would do it again – because overall it was worth the battle, and having the battle is, in this case, more important than the result.”

Dr Ridd, the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs and the left-wing National Tertiary Education Union argued that whatever the merits of Dr Ridd’s views, he was protected by a right to academic freedom in the university’s collective pay agreement with staff.

The university argued that Ridd was not sacked for his views but instead breached its code of conduct which required staff to act in a courteous and respectful way, and then further breached confidentiality requirements about the disciplinary procedure.

On Wednesday five justices of the High Court unanimously found that intellectual, or academic, freedom as contained in the university’s pay deal “is not qualified by a requirement to afford respect and courtesy in the manner of its exercise”.

The justices said that, as a result, an initial censure in 2016 against Dr Ridd was not justified and quoted the famous 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill in their reasoning.

“Whilst a prohibition upon disrespectful and discourteous conduct in intellectual expression might be a ‘convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world’,” the justices held, “the ‘price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind’.”

However, that did not result in an overall victory for Dr Ridd because the court found that his conduct extended well beyond the expression of opinion within his area of academic expertise. Had his conduct related only to his area of expertise or criticism of JCU decisions through proscribed processes it would have been protected by intellectual freedom. Because his case was run on an all or nothing basis, that meant Dr Ridd lost.

“This litigation concerned conduct by Dr Ridd far beyond that of the 2016 censure, almost none of which was protected by the intellectual freedom... That conduct culminated in the termination decision, a decision which itself was justified by 18 grounds of serious misconduct, none of which involved the exercise of intellectual freedom.”

The Institute of Public Affairs, which had helped Ridd run his case via crowdfunding and public relations support, said the decision showed Australia’s universities were mired in a crisis of censorship.

“Our institutions increasingly want to control what Australians are allowed to say and what they can read and hear,” executive director John Roskam said in a statement that also announced Dr Ridd would be joining the institute as an unpaid research fellow to work on “real science”.

Ahead of the decision on Wednesday, federal Education Minister Alan Tudge announced that all 41 Australian universities were now compliant with the French model code on free speech, proposed by former High Court chief justice Robert French.

“This has taken two years to get to this point, but each university now has policies which specifically protect free speech,” Mr Tudge said.

The federal government has also legislated a definition of academic freedom into university funding laws - a push led by former education minister Dan Tehan who said last year that he’d received legal advice that Mr Ridd would not have been sacked had the definition been in place at the time.

The definition, which was also based on wording recommended by Mr French in his government-commissioned review of free speech at Australian universities, includes “the freedom of academic staff to teach, discuss, and research and to disseminate and publish the results of their research” and “to contribute to public debate, in relation to their subjects of study and research.”


Classroom windows to be open so schools meet COVID-safe air standards

Students and teachers will have to put up with heat, noise and pollination in classrooms when school returns for some next week as new ventilation advice provided to the NSW Education Department says windows should be opened in all possible circumstances to mitigate COVID-19 transmission.

If windows are kept open at all times – including after lessons, over lunch and during hot weather or rain – independent modelling released on Tuesday shows the average public school classroom will meet global standards for fresh air changes and indoor carbon dioxide levels.

The department is also releasing 2200 school-level ventilation reports which are available to parents before students in kindergarten, year 1 and year 12 return on October 18. Other years return on October 25. They have divided school spaces into two categories: rooms that can have full capacity with their windows open, and rooms that need to implement the one person per four square metre rule.

For the latter category, which mainly affects staff offices, schools have been told how many people can be in that space safely.

Engineering consultancy Steensen Varming was contracted to provide independent advice to the department. It used guidelines from the World Health Organisation and the Harvard School of Public Health to gauge whether natural ventilation in classrooms met global standards for mitigating COVID-19 transmission.

The report assumes the typical NSW classroom has a 65 square metre floor area, 2.7 metre ceiling height, and accommodates 25 students and one teacher. It also assumes there are 3.25 square metres (or 5 per cent of floor space) worth of open windows – which is the standard that schools have been built to under construction codes – and that windows are positioned on one side of the room, which is a worst-case scenario.

“There are obviously numerous variables that would need to be considered ... However, known industry tools have been used to estimate likely [air changes per hour] of natural ventilation together with conservative assumptions of some variables for a typical classroom,” the report says.

The calculations indicate classrooms will achieve the main benchmarks of fresh airflow: there would be six air changes per hour and carbon dioxide levels would be about 726 parts per million, which is safely below the accepted threshold of 850. When the number of students in the room increases to 30, estimated CO₂ levels are 772.

“The typical classroom satisfies and exceeds the WHO road map first strategy approach of providing the nominated fresh air ventilation rate of 10 [litres per second] per person. Additionally, the results also show satisfactory CO₂ levels in the typical classroom,” it says.

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said the Steensen Varming report would allow schools to implement expert ventilation advice at a classroom level.

“Parents can be assured that everything is being done to ensure schools are safe for students,” she said. “We need to listen to the experts when it comes to ventilation, just as we do with vaccines.”

Steensen Varming said there was no “zero risk” scenario and that some of its advice may not apply to all school buildings, while issues such as hot weather had not been accounted for.

“As we are currently in spring external temperatures are mild and favourable for natural ventilation. However as we approach summer, and with rising ambient temperatures, the reliance on natural ventilation will lead to thermal comfort issues in classrooms,” the report says.

Classrooms that use air conditioning units on hot days will still need to keep their windows open, meaning rooms will not be as cool and students may be less comfortable.

High outdoor air pollution or pollen levels, loud outdoor noise for schools near construction sites or under flight paths, and security concerns might also affect a school’s ability to open windows. “If it is windy, hot, cold or raining then it may not be practical to fully open the windows or vents,” the report says.

But in all cases the advice says the “highest tolerable” amount of outdoor air should be used, even if it means students and teachers have to adjust their clothing to be comfortable: “[Windows] should be open as far as reasonably possible without causing intolerable discomfort.”

The report also says that wind pressure and certain temperatures – two factors that ensure successful natural ventilation – will inevitably vary based on weather, the position of the classroom and its windows, as well as obstructions like mesh or fly screens.

School Infrastructure NSW chief executive Anthony Manning said the design criteria governing the state’s schools with regards to window sizes meant classrooms would generally have all the fresh air they needed. His team will be working with schools in coming weeks as they adjust to the new edict.

“We’ve said to schools, you can run your wall-mounted air conditioning systems [for heat], you just have to run them with the windows open. They won’t be as effective, but they will provide some level of comfort. The idea is we’ll work with schools to understand all those issues [such as heat and noise] and find alternative ways of doing it,” he said.

The department is also sourcing about 10,000 air purifiers that schools can use if natural ventilation is not sufficient, or in the event of bushfire smoke or poor air quality.

The state’s infrastructure staff are finishing maintenance tasks before all students return on October 25. This includes fixing window frames that have been painted shut and fitting mesh or restrictors on windows above ground level so they can open safely.


Voluntary assisted dying [euthanasia] bill draws multiparty support across NSW Parliament

Twenty-eight MPs from across the NSW Parliament will support new legislation to legalise voluntary euthanasia, the highest number of co-sponsors to a bill in the history of any Australian parliament.

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill is the first major parliamentary test for new Premier Dominic Perrottet, who has promised to allow a conscience vote on the issue which is likely to be highly divisive within the Liberal Party.

Neither Mr Perrottet nor Labor Opposition Leader Chris Minns support the bill.

The proposed law, which has the support of government MPs, Labor, Greens and assorted members of the crossbench, will give terminally ill people the option to end their lives at a time and place of their choosing.

On Tuesday, the independent member for Sydney Alex Greenwich, who will introduce the bill this week, delivered a petition of more than 100,000 signatures to the State Parliament supporting the legislation.

“This year, we have all heard the calls from the community, that people with a terminal illness in NSW deserve the choice of having a peaceful end of life, rather than a cruel and painful one,” he said.

Mr Greenwich said he hoped the multi-partisan support would ensure respectful debate of the bill through the parliament by the end of the year.

“There will be members who are obviously going to be opposing this reform, and they will come from a really genuine position, a faith position, no doubt,” he said.

“I want to work with them and see if we can address any of their concerns... if a member does have a concern that they feel can be addressed through an amendment then that amendment will be seriously considered”.

Should the legislation pass, Mr Greenwich said it would not be enacted for 18 months, to ensure the right policy settings can be in place.

Liberal MPs Lee Evans, Felicity Wilson, Leslie Williams and Nationals MP Trevor Khan are among the 28 co-sponsors of the bill.

Labor MPs co-sponsoring the bill include Jo Haylen, Jenny Aitchison, David Meehan, Jodie Harrison, Trish Doyle, Sonia Hornery, Leisl Tesch, Kate Washington, Tim Crakanthorp, Adam Searle, John Graham and Anthony D’Adam.

The bill also has the support of Greens MPs David Shoebridge, Abigail Boyd, Jamie Parker, Cate Faerhmann, Jenny Leong and Tamara Smith.

Opposition leader Chris Minns on Tuesday said he would not support the bill, but added he believed his view was in the minority within the NSW Labor party.

“I don’t think that you can codify the risks for a vulnerable person who’s in the latter stages of their life who may feel that they’re a burden on their family or their loved ones,” Mr Minns said.

“I think that’s a real concern and I don’t think it can be dealt with as per the writing of the bill.”

Mr Minns said he hoped the passage of the bill would be smooth. “Look I’m not hoping for problems I’m hoping that it’s dealt with,” he said.

Mr Greenwich acknowledged the concerns raised by Mr Minns, but countered that the legislation would create criminal offences to target coercion and require doctors be specifically trained to identify if someone is under any pressure.

“NSW will be the last state to legislate for voluntary assisted dying. That means we have been able to learn from the legislation and every other jurisdiction to make sure that we have the strongest safeguards,” Mr Greenwich said.

Fellow independents Greg Piper and Justin Field will also co-sponsor the voluntary assisted dying bill, as will members of the Animal Justice Party and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.


Finkel defends huge Chinese CO2 emissions

Dr Alan Finkel was Australia’s Chief Scientist for five years until the end of last year. He was then appointed Special Adviser to the Australian Government on Low Emissions Technology

The fact that China had a net zero target for 2060 when the developed world had a target date of 2050 was “partly fairness and partly reality,” Dr Alan Finkel said.

The former Chief Scientist, speaking in a live forum with Joe Hildebrand, said China was bringing millions of people out of poverty, “and they deserve to improve their lifestyle”.

As a manufacturing powerhouse for the world, China’s ability to decarbonise was limited compared to some other countries, Dr Finkel said.

“They can do nothing immediately, or in percentage terms as rapidly, as the more developed countries,” he said.

Dr Finkel said it was true that China’s emissions were “huge and getting bigger”.

“They want to know that everybody’s pitching in. Everyone has to contribute,” he said.




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