As I explained in the previous blog (1) Robert Clark has now submitted his report, following the Inquiry he conducted into the actions of Jennie Brand-Miller and Anthony Barclay at the University of Sydney set up in response to allegations made by Rory Robertson. Robertson has now had an opportunity to analyse the report and his comments have just been posted on his website (2).here are some of the key points he makes:
- Five of seven of Professor Clark’s “Preliminary Findings of Fact” are factually incorrect.
- Clarke concluded that “Statements made by the Complainant alleging that the United Nations FAO has falsified data are serious, and do not appear to be based on detailed evidence or inquiry”.However it is clear from the email correspondence between Robertson and officials at the FAO that this conclusion cannot be substantiated. Quite simply the only relevant information available to the FAO was that produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Data up to 1999 was produced by the ABS but was discontinued after that because the organisation was not satisfied that it could prepare reliable figures. No doubt this means that there were question marks about the figures which were released for some years prior to this. However as Robertson makes clear the data which FAO produced for the years after 1999 were based essentially on that 1999 value. All of these points were put the FAO in a long and detailed email to FAO officials in December 2012. Apparently there was no reply. As the FAO is obviously using ABS data that lacks credibility, Robertson’s case is compelling and Clark has not provided a valid justification for his conclusion.
- Although Clark interviewed Brand-Miller and Barclay he did not interview Robertson. This is rather surprising as it is essential that an even-handed approach is adopted in any investigation of this type. When this is related to the fact that some of the key documentation was apparently not consulted there must be serious questions about the objectivity of the inquiry.
- Robertson’s prime objection is that the quality of the data, which have been used to conclude that the consumption of sugar has declined, is poor. This “fact” is absolutely crucial to the formulation of the “Australian Paradox”. This in turn has major implications for the food industry and for the formulation of public health policy.
- Clark failed to investigate properly misrepresentation of the information on the changes in soft drink consumption. In the original paper there is a graph which clearly shows that the consumption of sugary soft drinks increased from 35 to 45 litres per person per year between 1994 and 2006. It is obvious to anyone that this is an increase of about 30%. Nevertheless, the authors somehow conclude that there is actually a decrease of 10%. Clearly this is a blatant misrepresentation of what is straight forward information. There was a decline in sugar consumption between 2002 and 2006 which Brand-Miller and Barclay calculated to be 600g per person per year. In fact the correct value is only 150g per person per year. Even if there was small reduction in sugar from soft drinks between 2002 and 2006 this certainly does not conflict with the fact there was an increase of 30% between 1994 and 2006. It is surprising that Clark did not refer to this issue.
Now that I have had a chance to go through the report of the investigator in some detail and also have the benefit of the initial response from the complainer, I am forced to the conclusion that it is not the hard-hitting independent investigation that was needed. It certainly comes across as a “get us out of a hole” report. When questions were first raised it was evident that the authorities in the University of Sydney were not impressed and tried to play things down and hope that Rory Robertson would go away. It is difficult to understand why the academics were given the opportunity to present their case in person but Robertson was not. Furthermore the failure on the part of the investigator to ignore some of the documentation submitted makes one suspect that he did not do a totally thorough job.
Whenever dubious behaviour is alleged or suspected, a very good maxim is to “follow the money”. In this case, there is absolutely no doubt that Charles Perkins Centre is a major part of the University of Sydney operation. It represents a huge investment and the work on glycaemic index is very good income source for the University. It is perfectly understandable that the senior management will be keen to protect it. It is highly likely that Robertson will have been regarded as a bit of a nuisance to be swatted away. As it happens he is made of stern stuff and was not going to go away without a fight.
In these days universities have to fight hard for finance but they also have a responsibility as centres of learning and a duty to uphold standards of integrity and scholarship. The longer this controversy goes on the harder it will be to reach a satisfactory solution. The reality is that this incident has done enormous damage to the reputation of the University of Sydney. The fact that this blog is based at the other side of the world demonstrates the impact is not just restricted to Australia. Robert Clark talks about lessons to be learned but makes no comment about how this has been managed by the University. In fact, the University has a really big problem. It has to clean up this mess. Because of the failure to address the allegations when they were made originally, “the powers that be” will have to consider not just the roles of Brand-Miller and Barclay but also the handling of the issue by the senior management. Above all, they would do well to act on the famous advice of Denis Healey “When you are in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging!”.