[MARMAM] Marine Mammal Science and Noise

Hal.Whitehead at dal.ca Hal.Whitehead at dal.ca
Mon Sep 26 11:16:37 PDT 2005

The following Letter to the Editor is now published and has just 
been sent out in the October issue of Marine Mammal Science.  
The Letter refers to an email exchange which illustrates some 
conflict of interest issues between marine mammal scientists and 
funding agencies.   A transcript of this email exchange can be 
viewed at:


Authentication of this email exchange can be viewed at:



MARINE MAMMAL SCIENCE, 21(4), (October 2005)


Gannon et al. (2004) take issue with comments made primarily by 
one of us (HW1) at a special session on ‘‘The Science Behind 
Noise and Marine Mammals’’ at the biennial meeting of the Society 
for Marine Mammalogy in Greensboro, NC. The intent of the 
comments was misunderstood by Gannon et al. (2004) and others. 
The comments were that: (1) It is becoming clear that sounds 
produced by navies are dangerous to marine mammals (the U.S. 
Navy has admitted its own sonar was most likely responsible for 
the deaths of several whales in the Bahamas; National Marine 
Fisheries Service and United States Navy 2001); (2) The U.S. 
Navy funds a major part of marine mammal science (sponsoring
70% of all marine mammal research in the U.S., and 50% of 
marine mammal research worldwide);2 (3) For instance, all the 
presenters of ‘‘The Science Behind Noise and Marine Mammals’’ at 
the special session were partially funded by the U.S. Navy, as was 
the conference itself; (4) This is a major problem, akin to a situation 
where most research on lung cancer, and a special information 
session on lung cancer at a professional meeting of oncologists, 
was funded by the tobacco industry.

Gannon et al. (2004) state that ‘‘. . . the objectivity of scientists
investigating the effects of military sonar on marine mammals was
called into question because of the source of their funding.’’ In
fact, there was no such comment. Many marine mammal scientists,
including some of us, have collaborated with military agencies in a
variety of ways. HW’s point was aimed at the structural problem of
naval funding of marine mammal science rather than at the 
objectivity and ethical behavior of any scientist. Conflicts-of-
interest exist independently of the actions of those burdened by 
them, and one should, in a mature debate, be able to raise concern 
about the former without being assumed to have impugned the 

The problem faced by marine mammal science is severe. If all 
ONR (U.S. Office of Naval Research) funded scientists were 
completely objective, and even if there were no attempts to 
influence their public statements, there is a substantial problem of 
perception of conflict-of-interest. It is easy to understand why many 
scientists and members of the public see a potential conflict when 
the U.S. Navy, a major noise producer, directly funds the majority 
of research on the effects of noise on marine mammals and holds 
the dominant funding position in marine mammal research. 
Perceived conflict of interest ‘‘can erode public trust in science and 
scientists’’ (Anon. 2001). As scientists, that trust is among our most 
precious assets. The problem of perceived conflict-of-interest in 
marine mammal science has been previously raised by some of us 
(Whitehead and Weilgart 1995), and noted by the U.S. National 
Research Council’s Report on Marine Mammals and Low-
Frequency Sound (National Research Council 2000; p. 84): ‘‘. .
. sponsors of research need to be aware that studies funded and 
led by one special interest are vulnerable to concerns about conflict 
of interest. For example, research on the effects of smoking funded 
by [the U.S. National Institute of Health] is likely to be perceived to
be more objective than research conducted by the tobacco 
industry.’’  The importance of funding by ONR has resulted in 
scientists being reluctant to speak out against the U.S. Navy for 
fear that it could affect their future research funding (Whitehead 
and Weilgart 1995).  Even if the Navy actually took no action 
against researchers, such self-censorship would impede marine 
mammal science and conservation.

However, ONR does not function separately from the operational 
side of the  Navy as Gannon et al. (2004) claim. There are clear 
demonstrations of this connection in public record e-mails 
disclosed by the U.S. Navy in recent litigation.3 Increasingly, in 
recent years, U.S. Navy funding for marine mammal research has 
also come from the office of the  Chief of Naval Operations, further 
blurring any separation between the operational side of the Navy 
and marine mammal funding. The above-mentioned e-mail 
exchanges show that the operational U.S. Navy considered that 
ONR-funded scientists had obligations to the U.S. Navy in their 
public comments on controversial noise-related conservation
issues. Thus, the behavior of funding agencies can subject 
scientists to unacceptable pressures that can make the conflict-of-
interest real as well as perceived, and from which they should be 
protected. A statement such as that made by HW pointing out this 
potential conflict of interest would be uncontroversial in other fields, 
such as pharmacology, that have been faced with these issues for 
much longer than marine mammal science.

In the title, and final paragraph, of their letter, Gannon et al.
(2004) lay the Naval funding debate out as an ethical issue.We
disagree: while there are ethical sides, the primary problem is
structural. More ethical guidelines will not solve the problem:
scientists will always be human. We do not, for instance, expect
parents to shed their bias when writing letters of reference for their
children. Instead, we simply do not allow it, even though some 
parents could be capable of perfectly objective assessments. While
peer-review, non-interference by the sponsor into the research and
publishing, the absence of prepublication ‘‘vetting’’ of manuscripts,
and other ethical guidelines undoubtedly help reduce some aspects 
of the  problem of conflict-of-interest, it still remains a substantial
issue. Because of the way marine mammal science is funded, it is
vulnerable to a failure of public confidence. Why place scientists in
difficult positions when one could restore trust by altering the
funding structure?

We believe the funding system should be changed to safeguard the
credibility of the field and to protect us all from conflicts-of-interest. 
The U.S. Navy is to be commended for its generosity in funding, 
but funds need to be administered independently, through a 
nonaligned body. An independent committee that has power and 
meaningfully represents all major stakeholders could establish 
priorities for the research, commission it, and recommend 
regulations. For instance, the U.S. National Research Council’s 
Report on Marine Mammals and Low-Frequency Sound suggested:
‘‘Concern for peer review, efficiency, and independence argues for
having an agency such as [the U.S. National Science Foundation] 
take the lead in managing an interagency research program on the 
effects of noise on marine mammals’’ (National Research Council 
2000; p. 84).

Gannon et al. (2004) are correct that ‘‘. . . many members of our
Society are funded by organizations having political agendas’’. 
While the U.S. Navy is a polluter, taxpayer supported, and 
overwhelmingly dominant compared with any other funder, it would 
also be desirable for environmental groups and others to channel 
their funds through independent bodies.

We hope that the goal of ‘‘vigorous, constructive scientific debate’’
mentioned in Gannon et al. (2004) will allow a dispassionate review 
of the  funding structure of marine mammal science. As Nature 
Medicine (Anon. 2001) notes for the medical community, marine 
mammalogy must ‘‘win back crucial public trust before the situation 
becomes irrevocable,’’ and we believe a crucial step is to remove 
the overwhelming position of the U.S. Navy in our field.

1 Personal communication from Damon P. Gannon, Center for 
Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research, Mote Marine 
Laboratory, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota, FL, 29 March 

 2 S. Tomaszeski, Oceanographer of the U.S. Navy; presentation 
at the First Plenary Meeting of the Advisory Committee on Acoustic 
Impacts on Marine Mammals, 3–5 February 2004, Bethesda, 
Maryland. Available at 

 3 A transcript of these e-mails can be obtained from 
lweilgar at dal.ca or from: 


ANON. 2001. In science we trust. Nature Medicine 7:871.

NOWACEK. 2004. Resonance and dissonance: Science, ethics, 
and the sonar debate.  Marine Mammal Science 20: 898–899.

STATES NAVY. 2001. Joint interim report. Bahamas marine 
mammal mass stranding event 15–16 March 2000.

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL. 2000. Marine mammals and 
low-frequency sound. National Academy Press, Washington, DC.

WHITEHEAD, H., AND L. WEILGART. 1995. Marine mammal 
science, the U.S. Navy and academic freedom. Marine Mammal 
Science and 11:260–263.

LINDA WEILGART and HAL WHITEHEAD, Department of Biology, 
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada; e-
mail: lweilgar at dal.ca;

LUKE RENDELL, Sea Mammal Research Unit, School of
Biology, University of St Andrews, Fife, KY16 8ES, United 

JOHN CALAMBOKIDIS, Cascadia Research, 218 1/2 W 4th Ave., 
Olympia, Washington 98501, U.S.A. Received 31 January 2005. 

Accepted 3 May 2005.

Lindy Weilgart, Ph.D. Research Associate and Assistant Professor 
Department of Biology Dalhousie University Halifax, Nova Scotia  
B3H 4J1 Canada Ph.: (902) 494-3723 Fax: (902) 494-3736 E-mail: 
lweilgar at dal.ca 

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