Dr. 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.