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.


  1. Kate Wing · May 13, 2016

    As someone who was worked with pretty much everyone involved in this fracas, I’ve been hesitant to dive into this on Twitter. So, thanks to Andrew for writing this and leaving the comments open. When I first saw the coverage of the Greenpeace letter, I assumed they were going after Ray for Ray’s court appearances as a paid expert witness for industry. Which is something Ray does and isn’t clearly called out in his list of funding sources. Maybe that’s because it’s not research funding, or maybe he’s donating those fees to charity, but it’s money. And I have not seen other scientists list paid expert witness fees on their funding sources either, so I don’t know how common the practice is.

    I think serving as a paid witness, where you are coached on testimony that will support your client’s position, is much more into that grey area of how “scientists shape policy” and it’s not putting research into a public or peer reviewed forum for scientific review and discussion. Is it different to be a sworn witness in court, taking money to talk about your research, than to take a speaking fee on a book tour? Is there a point at which being paid for conclusions, not research, is unacceptable? I think that’s a more interesting question for the science community to discuss and what I would have thought John Hocevar would go after. Because if you read Ray’s research and his CV, being shocked, shocked, that he’s taking money from industry is a bit of a water is wet discovery.

    Here’s the case I’m referring to:

    Also, I previously worked at a foundation that funded Ray’s work and I have personally bought him dinner. Where I think we just argued about the utility of MSY, but there were drinks, too.

  2. John Hocevar · May 13, 2016

    In general, I think people have tended to form opinions on this pretty quickly, often without taking the time to check the facts. Did you read the complaint letter we sent to UW? It is very long, but it might make you think differently about this – and at least would help clarify what we are and are not saying. The letter is available here:

    There are definitely a wide range of views about how much disclosure is important, and while that is a discussion I am glad to see happen, it isn’t central to our point. We called out several examples of what we see as very direct conflicts of interest that were not disclosed, in major publications. I doubt you or many others would disagree that this is a matter of some concern.

    The science is clear that funding can bias research, even when scientists think they are immune to that effect. See Why Disclosure Matters for more on that if you are interested:

    Ultimately, the crux of the issue is this: the one scientist who has been most critical of conservation efforts and those who advocate for them has taken millions of dollars from industry and failed to disclose those conflicts of interest in accordance with the policies of scientific journals. His industry ties may have been an open secret, but only for people who knew him and his work intimately. Disclosure matters.

    Kate, thank you for bringing up the issue of paid testimony on behalf of the fishing industry. That seems worthy of discussion and debate as well.

    Some people are concerned about the impact of this scandal on the public’s trust in science, and scientists. The fact is, that in any community there will be people who violate the ethical norms of that community. The real test comes with how that community reacts – do they defend the violator, or do they recognize the need for accountability? Judging from the support we’ve received from many leading scientists, it is clear to me that a lot of researchers share our concerns.

    John H

    • Bob Vanasse · May 13, 2016

      John, really “Some people are concerned about the impact of this scandal on the public’s trust in science, and scientists?” Let’s be serious, this isn’t a “scandal,” it is typical of Greenpeace and their muckraking tactics. It is the equivalent of the half-truths you pay naive college students to promulgate in front of the Apple Store in Georgetown. I have respect for your work with Students for a Free Tibet, but this ‘allergy’ that people who spend their entire career in the non-profit world have for the fiscally productive sector of the economy would be humorous if it were not so reprehensible. Perhaps you should try working for an actually company in the for-profit sector to help you get a better and more accurate world view. Where do you think the money that goes into the tax-deductible trusts that pay your salary comes from? It does not rain down like biblical manna.

      Your response, using words like “open secret” and “scandal” is more offensive than your organization’s complaint.

      What is truly offensive is the degree to which environmental organizations are willing to influence the uninformed with half-truths and outright lies to keep their funding sources intact. Adopting an end-justifies-the-means approach because you are convinced your organization has a monopoly on rectitude is both arrogant and immoral.

  3. Bucky · May 13, 2016

    Is science bullshit?
    But there is a lot of bullshit masquerading as science.

  4. John Bruno · May 13, 2016

    It is pretty clear Andrew hasn’t read the document John Hocevar cites above. I’ve been battling Ray for years and I had no idea he was receiving millions from industry as a “consultant”. This was not an “open secret”. I testified in the congressional hearing on MS referenced to in the letter and my jaw dropped when Ray argued the oceans were “underfished”. Yet I never suspected he was being paid or rewarded for that opinion. None of us that worked on the reauthorization did. (We just assumed he had wacky, right wing ideas about resource use and the environment). And no, it isn’t common for scientists who work on applied issues to accept $ from industries that they vocally defend. This is ethics 101. You just don’t do this if you want to be taken seriously.

    “Heck, some of the organizations Greenpeace lists as partisan, like the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation are organizations that Greenpeace works with, too.”

    SO WHAT?! Greenpeace isn’t an independent academic scientist.

    “Greenpeace has thrown away a lot of good will in the marine conservation community for a quixotic campaign.”

    NONSENSE. Everybody I’ve communicated with about this is applauding it. Thank you John / Greenpeace. Well done.

    “Conflict is part of science, compromise is part of policy. Neither is de facto evidence of industry-bought-bias.”

    Yes, but that isn’t the issue at all is it.

    “the source of funding is not a priori indicative of bias.”

    While generally true, its obvious why a lobbying group would pay a scientist, i.e., not for a peer-reviewed journal article. And the $ I’m concerned with is “consultancy” $ and hundreds of thousands for the attack blog. But I do agree, the payment isn’t “proof” of bias. But on the other hand, don’t be a tool OK? I know you weren’t born yesterday.

    After you’ve read the Greenpeace letter, I think you need to correct your post, i.e.;

    “Claiming that a researcher is failing to disclose funding information when that information clearly is available and accessible…”

    And to this:

    “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.”

    BALONY. That one of the top academic scientists in a field has accepted millions from lobbying groups is an earth-shattering reveal in marine ecology and conservation science. We will be teaching this case study for decades as an example to our students of what not to do.

  5. An update here. PNAS journal, Science journal, and the University of Washington have cleared Ray Hilborn of all charges. He disclosed funding for the papers he wrote, as is standard practice followed by the other commenters on this thread, and didn’t disclose funding that was for other purposes. Further, in 35 papers where he did receive funding from fishing industry, he disclosed industry funding, which is hardly concealing his funding. Anyone unaware of Ray Hilborn receiving money from a variety of sources including industry, clearly has (1) a personal agenda against Ray’s science, (2) has not read his papers or looked at his acknowledgements, or (3) is willfully pretending that they had no idea to score political points.

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