[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
Authentication of this email exchange can be viewed at:
MARINE MAMMAL SCIENCE, 21(4), (October 2005)
SIGNAL-TO-NOISE: FUNDING STRUCTURE VERSUS ETHICS
AS A SOLUTION TO CONFLICT-OF-INTEREST RESPONSE TO
RESONANCE AND DISSONANCE: SCIENCE, ETHICS, AND
THE SONAR DEBATE, MARINE MAMMAL SCIENCE
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. HWs 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 Councils 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
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 Councils
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, 35 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.
GANNON, D. P., D. W. JOHNSTON, A. J. READ AND D.
NOWACEK. 2004. Resonance and dissonance: Science, ethics,
and the sonar debate. Marine Mammal Science 20: 898899.
NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE AND UNITED
STATES NAVY. 2001. Joint interim report. Bahamas marine
mammal mass stranding event 1516 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 11:260263.
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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