Six thoughts about Greenpeace’s attack on Ray Hilborn.

Update: Both the University of Washington and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have reviewed Greenpeace’s claims and concluded that Hilborn did not violate their disclosure policy.

First, some background:

Or, just read Trevor Branch’s timeline.

1. The idea that scientists should declare every source of funding over the history of their career on every scientific paper is impractical and wholly unnecessary in a connected world where anyone can effortlessly access a researcher’s CV. Non-profit NGOs only need to file one financial disclosure statement every year, not attach it to every press release, and that is also perfectly adequate.

2. Transparency in funding is important. Claiming that a researcher is failing to disclose funding information when that information clearly is available and accessible erodes public trust in science and makes everyone’s job harder. Greenpeace didn’t send a team of stealth lawyers on an o’dark thirty raid of the UW mainframe, they asked for the information and were given it.

3. Inquiring about sources of funding is a legitimate way to assess bias in policy-informing research. Good researchers often forget the bad researchers exist, and for every case like Hilborn’s, where the science clearly leads, there are cases like this: A Big-time Neuroscientist Threatened to Sue When I Asked About His Side Business Selling Supplement ‘Tonics’. Wielding the authority of science to push partisan agendas is a tried and tested tool of industrial, financial, and political behemoths, and understanding those connections is important.

Here’s the thing: Simply saying “X gets money from Y” is not a result in and of itself. It’s a starting point for deeper inquiry. When that deeper inquiry fails to reveal fundamental flaws in the research, simply reporting the funding source is, at best, disingenuous.

4. Science is not pure. Science is a process, conducted by people. All people have biases, which is why there’s healthy debate in the scientific community surrounding the best approaches to fisheries management. Science doesn’t shape policy, *scientists* shape policy, and that distinction is important. What makes science unique is that, through review of the methods and the data, the public can see how we reached our conclusions. How that data was paid for is part of that process.

Greenpeace isn’t really attacking Hilborn’s science. John Hocevar certainly knows that dog won’t hunt. What they’re really trying to call into question is how Hilborn’s science is used to shape fisheries policy.

5. Who funds your research absolutely influences how you discuss an issue and how you approach policy recommendations, but not in the way you think it does. When you’re embedded in an issue like fisheries management, working with, meeting with, and interacting with multiple stakeholders on a regular basis creates a more nuanced view of how all the pieces fit together. That experience shapes policy recommendations.

Experience is the key word. A long, meritorious career in fisheries science, like Hilborn’s, is going to produce a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the state of the world’s fisheries, and that perception is going to necessarily clash with groups who are only interested in understanding part of the issue, rather than the whole. It will likely also clash with other scientists with long, meritorious careers in fisheries science. Conflict is part of science, compromise is part of policy. Neither is de facto evidence of industry-bought-bias.

Most industry groups are not the tobacco lobby perpetrating an outright fraud against the American public (some are). Most industry groups do, genuinely, believe that their position will be supported by the data. Most industry groups believe that their interests are best served by unquestionably unbiased data. So when they fund research, they generally want that research to reflect the best available science, the science that will hold up to a prolonged, withering barrage from other interest groups. Biased science generally does a disservice to biased organizations. How they spin that science is generally how they shape policy in their favor.

Yes, some scientists bias their data towards their funders in the hopes of getting more funding and some industry groups use the cash cudgel to bully scientists into producing positive data, and those phenomena should be recognized, but the source of funding is not a priori indicative of bias.

6. The funding sources were disclosed, just not in the particular form that Greenpeace wanted. Beyond that, Hilborn’s funding record is not a secret to anyone working in Pacific Northwest fisheries management, nor the broader marine science and conservation community. Heck, some of the organizations Greenpeace lists as partisan, like the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation are organizations that Greenpeace works with, too.

Greenpeace has thrown away a lot of good will in the marine conservation community for a quixotic campaign. It is unclear what their objective here is, other than creating some noise and thunder in the fisheries world.

May 13, 2016 • 9:21 am