Whither scientific debate? A rebuttal of “Contextualising UK moorland burning studies: geographical versus potential sponsorship-bias effects on research conclusions” by Brown and Holden (bioRxiv 2019; 731117)

Mark Ashby, Andreas Heinemeyer

Research output: Working paper


1. We recently published a peer-reviewed critique of the EMBER report. In a preprint response, Brown & Holden (2019) resorted to making spurious accusations of undeclared competing interests, a series of disingenuous arguments about the robustness of the EMBER results, as well as false claims of sponsorship bias. We feel that much of what they wrote falls well outside the realm of respectable scientific debate. 2. Crucially, however, Brown & Holden (2019) did not address our previous criticisms by providing a robust reanalysis of the EMBER report data that correctly accounted for site and covariate effects within the same statistical model. In our reply, we also present additional flaws which further call into question the EMBER results. 3. Brown & Holden (2019) also produced a literature review to show that the EMBER results are not out of line with the broader evidence base. However, they included papers not directly relevant to the EMBER report we criticised. Therefore, we have carried out a more accurate review. Our results indicate that the quantity and quality of available literature make it difficult to contextualise the findings of the EMBER report. 4. Finally, Brown & Holden (2019) present an error-stricken analysis of grouse moor sponsorship bias within the prescribed burning literature. Their claim that grouse moor funded research “should be treated with extreme caution by the policy community” goes well beyond what their data allows them to say. Not only does such a claim egregiously impugn the reputation of many scientists in the field, but it also contradicts the long-established notion that it is the quality of the science that should drive evidence-led policy. 5. Policy Implications. The results of the EMBER report remain unreliable. Therefore, for the time being, it should not be considered as valid evidence by policymakers. We suggest that the data from the EMBER report is reanalysed to address the shortfalls that we identify. Only then can the EMBER data and findings be used to inform upland land management policy. Also, to provide clarity to policymakers, we recommend that an independent audit into evidence reliability is carried out across the prescribed burning evidence base.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 25 Oct 2019

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