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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?