My research and I were the victims of a conservative media attack

Will whiteDr. Will White is an assistant professor of marine biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  He uses a combination of lab experiments, field studies, and mathematical models to study fish behavior and population dynamics, in particular how fish populations respond to protection in no-take marine reserves.

My adventure with the news media began on a Friday morning in early October, when I received an unexpected email from Melanie Hunter, a senior editor at CNSNews.com. The terse email mentioned my recent grant on sex-changing fishes, and asked why this was “an effective use of taxpayer funds.” She gave me a deadline of 4 pm that day. Now, usually it’s great when reporters want to cover scientific research, but generally once someone starts asking about “taxpayer funds” it’s because they don’t think those funds are being used wisely. What ended up happening with CNS News (Federal Govt’ Spends $728K to Study Sex-changing Fish”) bore out my suspicions.

I should back up to explain that I do have a federal grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study sex-changing fish. For anyone who has ever applied for an NSF grant, the idea that they are just handing out taxpayer dollars willy-nilly is pretty laughable: the grant selection process is notoriously grueling.  For the division of NSF that funds research in marine biology, only 5-10% of proposals are funded.  Proposals are reviewed by multiple anonymous peer referees, and then a panel comprised of multiple experts in the field convenes to evaluate the proposals based on the peer reviews and identify the best ones for funding.  In fact this was my first successful NSF grant after about five previous proposals were declined.

So why is NSF funding research on sex-changing fish anyway?  It turns out that lots of fish change sex; it’s a phenomenon termed sequential hermaphroditism.  It tends to be found in fish where body size plays a role in mating.  For example, in the bluehead wrasse, a small Caribbean coral reef fish, large males defend territories and monopolize matings with all the females within their territory.  Smaller males are chased away and rarely get to mate.  So it’s only good to be male when you’re big.  Consequently, natural selection has favored a sex-changing system: all bluehead wrasse begin their lives as females (females can mate as frequently as they like, regardless of size), then once they are large enough to effectively defend a territory, they may change into a male (I’m skimming over some details; you can read more about them here.) Bluehead wrasse are one of the best-studied sex-changers, but lots of species have a similar sex-change pattern, from tiny gobies to large groupers, wrasses, and parrotfishes (anemonefish like Nemo change too but they go in the opposite direction – male first, then female later).

One concern about sex-changing species is what happens when we fish for them.  Generally fishing removes the biggest individuals from a population.  In a sex-changing species, those big individuals will all be male.  Thus fishing will not only remove fish but also skew the sex ratio.  Conceivably, males could suddenly be in such short supply that female fish can’t find a mate, and reproduction collapses.  However, we don’t really know how this works, despite the fact that many of the fish we eat are sex-changers.  So our project is going to study what happens when you remove the large males (as fishing would) from a sex-changing population.  In our case we will be studying small gobies that live in California kelp forests, because those fish are relatively easy to manipulate. Then we will use mathematical models to extrapolate our findings from the gobies to larger fished species, like the California sheephead.  NSF funding is awarded on the basis of both ‘intellectual merit’ (does it advance scientific knowledge?) and ‘broader impacts’ (does it benefit society?), and our project ticks off both of those boxes.

Back to Melanie Hunter’s email… a quick look at CNSNews.com revealed what the game was.  In addition to plenty of stories with a decidedly right-wing slant (e.g., this is a good place to learn what Dr. Ben Carson thinks about Ebola), there was a series of stories written by Melanie Hunter about federally-funded scientific grants.  All followed a pretty standard formula: Hunter gives the title of the grant (typically something involving sexuality, alcohol, or drugs) and the total budget, and then some quotes from the grant itself that give a few details about the work.  Then the kicker: each one ends with a statement that Dr. X, principal investigator of the project, was contacted, but did not respond by press time. So bit of implied tacit guilt at the end.  Then the reader comments for each article were mostly along the lines of “this is a waste of taxpayer money” and “stupid scientists; I could have told you that XYZ happens.”  Given all of the recent press regarding attacks by the Republican-led House Science Committee on the peer-review process at NSF,  this seemed to be a small piece in the larger conservative attack on scientific independence at federal agencies.

My options seemed obvious: don’t respond to an obviously ill-intentioned inquiry and risk looking guilty, or respond and hopefully discourage Hunter from writing the article in the first place (after all, why bother writing it without the concluding ‘gotcha’?).  So I wrote Hunter back.  I don’t have to summarize what I wrote here, because a week later she essentially reprinted my email in its entirety.  Very oddly, her story followed the same template as the others, but instead of the concluding sentence about not being able to contact the PI, she just included my entire multiple-paragraph email response. As I read the piece, I thought it actually came off as a pretty good justification for our research (after all, it was mostly my words!).  How did the readership of CNS News respond?  In a word…unpleasantly.  A number of readers suggested that our research was advancing the “gay liberal” “LGBTZXW” agenda by providing “justification for homosexual sodomy” (by studying male fish that have sex with female fish? Okay.), or taking money away from the military, or, most interestingly a kind soul named Houmid suggested that “the government is looking for ways to apply sex changes to people so they can neuter ‘troublemakers’.”  You get the idea.  Nice people.  Actually there were some valiant souls who had actually read the article, then waded into the comments to defend our science, with little success.

Of course this is not the first time that people have said mean, misinformed things about a scientist on the internet.  And attacking the NSF for funding research that sounds funny when described out of context is definitely not a new thing.  Sen. William Proxmire handed out one of his Golden Fleece awardsto my PhD advisor for his own work on sex-changing fish back in 1978.  Did I learn anything from my experience?  Yes: first, nobody ever actually reads the whole article. Second, the words ‘sex-change’ will definitely not be in the title of my next grant.  Maybe ‘gender transformation’ instead?

  1. Just a quick note that “gender” =/= “sex,” which is something you should consider when you talk about your work.

    Thanks for writing about this. I’m sorry that your work was a target, but I’m really glad that you’re writing about this, because conservative, anti-science shenanigans need to be exposed. Very telling that she gave you an arbitrary 4 pm deadline to respond, and yet it took a week for the article to come out!

  2. I am so sorry this happened to you so early in your career. It is much easier to deal with this kind of thing after you get tenure. I hope the administration of your university will support you enthusiastically.

  3. After this posted I realized I forgot to acknowledge my outstanding colleagues on the grant – Scott Hamilton at Moss Landing Marine Labs, and Mark Steele and Mia Adreani at Cal State Northridge.

    Also, good point from Acclimatrix about terminology. The gender/sex swap was something suggested by a colleague to slide under the radar…

  4. Reminder: the entire budget of the NSF is about what Americans eat worth of potato chips in a year.

    Reminder: the cost of the F-35 jet program would pay for the NSF for nearly 200 years.

  5. Having been through a neocon ambush myself I can sympathize. I hope you can see beyond their petty narrow-mindedness. The best you can do is wear your “Proxmiring” as a badge of honour. Plus they did at least let you argue your case, so the few sane readers who happen upon this can at least see your side. Words to live by: “Just don’t read the comment threads!”

    As for “why is the gummint paying for this?!?” you can start with “because we like to eat fish, jobs depend on fisheries, and we want to ensure there will be fish to catch in the future.” Suddenly it doesn’t look so arcane and tree-buggy in that light.

    As for not tripping people up on “sex-change”, you can go all vague and call it “alternate reproductive strategies”, but then again you want sincere readers wanting to learn about this topic to be able to find your papers; they might actually use ‘sex-changing fish’ in their search terms; so that’s a countervailing factor.

  6. This is worthwhile practical research. There is no question (IMHO at least) that it advances scientific knowledge and is economically relevant.

    That said, I disagree that the article was a “hit piece.” The reporter not only did a fair job of summarising the grant, but she printed the author’s email further explaining its importance.

    Yes, the title was crafted to attract attention – and it did. That is actually a good thing when the article fairly conveys the importance & substance of your study. Any reasonably intelligent person who reads the article will come to that conclusion.

    As for the comments, I’m frankly surprised you even bothered to read them. Most of the commenters on these sites are brainless astro-turfers who flood the web with low brow hyper-partisan commentary because they are either (a) psychopaths or (b) getting paid by some political operation.

  7. Congratulations on the NSF grant. People who have no idea just what a phenomenal achievement it is landing an NSF, will likely have no idea how such funding really can be a benefit to the public. (The problem with ignorance is that the ignorant have NO IDEA that they are ignorant, or how ignorant they may be) I feel for you; I really do. I wish I could say that my own jousting with the media revolved around grant funds of such magnitude, but I’m fortunate (in a back-handed way) that grants in my field are seldom large enough to draw much attention.

    That said, journalists are out to write an attention-getting story, period. If they don’t care to focus on the benefits that may be derived from funded research (which may sound boring to many audiences), they will generally attempt to find something they consider to be “questionable” to focus on – they care a lot more about their piece than about your research.

    Obviously, you know this by now (and likely knew it beforehand); you’re not the first researcher whose work wasn’t given the kind of “even-handed” press we traditionally expect from “professional” journalism, and you won’t be the last. Rest assured that the problem isn’t you, your research, the NSF system, or even the amount of the funding, it’s the all-too-common lack of journalistic professionalism in today’s media.

    Best of luck with your work!

  8. Dr. White. Thank you for posting this. My colleagues and I were happy to read it. As you note, shrinking away from scrutiny and not responding to it can make it look like you have something to hide. You were absolutely right to offer a response and thank you further for encouraging other scientists to do the same. I would add that there are two other steps scientists can take to further protect themselves and accurately convey their work. The first is to publish a response to scrutiny on a blog or other website where they control the content and publication. That makes it harder for others to take scientists’ words out of context. The second is to keep one’s response to a scrutinizing question relatively short. Journalists — and even writers for partisan websites — often won’t publish lengthier responses in full. We’ve published more on this here: http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/center-science-and-democracy/protecting-scientists-harassment/science-in-an-age-of-scrutiny.html

    Aaron Huertas
    Science Communications Officer
    Union of Concerned Scientists

  9. Thanks for the exposure & example of such myopic & prejudicial & opinionated ‘News Reporting’ we see on national (Fox) tv. This is very important because such phenomenon eventually influence government policies and hence, all of us.

  10. Bernard, you’re correct that on its face it’s not a literal hit piece. Yet the context of the reporter’s behavior and the other articles in the series show that it was intended to be a dog-whistle to enrage and elicit page views from folks who disapprove of government-funded science, while still retaining a veneer of plausible deniability that it was a legit news piece. The fact that the article ended up just being a long quotation from me reflects more on the laziness of the writer than on the actual intent.

  11. I’m sorry your work was attacked like that. The world needs more researchers and less ignorant, big mouths. If nothing else, you may have convinced at least one of those people that saving fish populations is a global imperative. Soldier on, and please know, not all Conservatives are that ignorant. 😉

  12. You know what really irritates me? The fact that someone reading about sex change in fishes might not respond with a “wow, that’s neat!” or curiosity about the subject but instead launches into a rant about their tax dollars being wasted. I mean, the fact that some fish species change sex is a pretty fascinating area of research and you can easily see the social benefits of studying such a thing. To whine about money at such wonders of natures just shows that these people have had their childhood curiosity stomped out of them and replaced with a joyless, mean spiritedness instead. I pity people like that, I truly do.

  13. CNSNews purports to be fair and balanced. They’re an arm of the Media Research Center.

    Here are “What Others Say About the MRC: Prominent conservatives depend on MRC’s publications and analysis to showcase left-wing bias in the media”.

    Rush Limbaugh
    “Liberals hate Brent Bozell. And in this business, that’s a badge of honor. He documents their excess, their idiocy, and their bias. Congratulations to MRC on their 25th Anniversary of vigilance and excellence in shining the light of truth on the liberal media.”

    Sean Hannity
    “The MRC has played a key role in our culture, not just documenting and exposing liberal bias, but helping to pave the way for the growth of an alternative media.”

    Mark Levin
    “Brent Bozell and the Media Research Center have been huge assets to the conservative movement over the last 25 years. The folks at the MRC fight the good fight every day, every week, every year, and I don’t know what we’d do without them.”

    Allen West
    “We have to have that guardian that really does look at the objectivity of the media and what is going on so that we can tell the American people the truth… So that we can have that level playing field out there, because this fifth column that the media has become, is taking America down a very perilous road. So I want to thank the MRC and Mr. Bozell and all of you for what you are doing.”

    Senator Mike Lee
    “For 25 years, MRC has been holding the media accountable for left-wing bias and selective reporting. They are an important resource for the country and are making a significant impact on the debate.”

    Steve Forbes
    “Before the emergence of talk-radio, before Fox News, before online center-right alternative media, there was Brent Bozell. He pioneered an entire cottage industry that effectively holds the national media accountable before the public. The exponential growth of alternative media owes a lot to Brent Bozell, as his relentlessness in exposing and documenting media bias is the foundation upon which they have succeeded.”