Greenpeace takes aim at high-profile UW fishery scientist in a complaint alleging he has not properly disclosed industry funding in his academic articles.
Ray Hilborn, a prominent University of Washington fishery scientist, is under attack from Greenpeace for sometimes leaving out mention of industry funding he receives in articles published in academic journals and elsewhere.
In a letter sent Wednesday to university President Ana Mari Cauce, Greenpeace filed a complaint against Hilborn’s research practices, and asked for an investigation.
Hilborn, over the years, has been a critic of Greenpeace as well as other environmental groups and researchers he accuses of overstating the impacts of fishing on marine resources.
In the letter to Cauce, Greenpeace unleashed a broadside against the scientist.
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“The failure of Dr. Hilborn to fully disclose his ties to industry put both scientific knowledge and the reputation of the University of Washington at risk,” wrote John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA’s ocean campaigns director.
Since 2003, Hilborn has brought in more than $3.55 million in industry dollars to the University of Washington, representing about 22 percent of the total outside funding he obtained from all sources during that period, according to documents released to Greenpeace under a public-disclosure request.
Hilborn reviewed Greenpeace’s complaint and issued a response. He said his research threatens the repeated assertions by the environmental group that overfishing is universal and that the oceans are being emptied.
“Obviously they are getting desperate because they haven’t been able to mount any type of attack on the quality of the science that I and this large group of collaborators have produced,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “So they got to attack the messenger.”
Hilborn, 68, said he has not felt obligated to disclose industry funding unless it was specifically for the research that is the focus of an academic journal article. Hilborn said he has never deliberately left out mention of such funding.
Some of the biggest industry funding came from groups in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska helping pay for salmon research. The money also flowed from Washington-based seafood companies, a trade association called the National Fisheries Institute, and the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council.
Much of the money is used for staff and student salaries, Hilborn said.
Altogether, the documents obtained by Greenpeace indicate Hilborn drew research funding to the university from at least 69 different industry sources, as well as consulting payments from others.
Greenpeace’s Hocevar, in his letter to Cauce, cites more than a half-dozen specific examples of papers published by Hilborn that allegedly failed to include full disclosure.
This represented a “significant departure from the accepted practices of his research community,” Hocevar wrote.
Greenpeace’s complaint also criticizes an online fisheries-information service that reaches out to the media: cfooduw.org. Hilborn helped launch cfooduw.org last fall with financial help from the seafood industry that is not noted on the website.
A UW spokesman said the Greenpeace complaint involves matters “we take very seriously.”
“We will be looking into the issues raised by Greenpeace to determine if problems exist and what steps might need to be taken to address them,’’ said Norm Arkans, the UW spokesman.
Money and disclosure
Amid shrinking public funding, university researchers often reach out to private industry to fund their work. Researchers also may do outside contract work, which at the UW requires prior approval.
The potential for industry funding to influence research has long been a topic of debate and controversy, and major journals have developed disclosure policies that attempt to lay out an author’s potential conflicts of interest.
For example, the journal Science asks authors “to reveal any financial relationships that could be perceived to influence the research,” according to a statement released by Science.
Hilborn has been published in many major academic journals, including Science, and is widely quoted in the media.
His research at the UW School of Aquatics and Fishery Sciences has focused “on how to best manage fisheries to provide sustainable benefits to human societies,” according to his website. He has helped to launch a global database of fish stocks, and his awards include the 2006 Volvo Environment Prize and, this year, the International Fisheries Science Prize.
He also has obtained funding from environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But Hilborn, over the years, has spoken out against what he portrays as the unwarranted gloom and doom pushed by some environmental groups, which he accuses of pushing bad news about fisheries to boost fundraising.
In a 2011 New York Times opinion piece headlined “Let Us Eat Fish,” Hilborn denounced “apocalyptic predictions about the future of fish stocks.” On his website and elsewhere, he has sought to debunk what he calls “myths” that include that most fisheries are overfished and that all fish stocks could be gone by 2048.
“On average, fish stocks worldwide appear to be stable, and in the United States they are rebuilding, in many cases at a rapid rate,” Hilborn wrote.
And in 2013 testimony submitted to Congress, he declared: “The major threat to sustainable jobs, food, recreational opportunity and revenue from U.S. marine fisheries is no longer overfishing, but underfishing.”
Critics and supporters
Greenpeace is attempting to label Hilborn an “overfishing denier,” comparing the professor to so-called climate-change deniers who are a minority in a scientific community that overwhelmingly accepts that fossil-fuel combustion contributes to global warming.
“This issue is analogous and no less important,” said Hocevar, who accuses Hilborn of downplaying the effects of overfishing.
Other researchers dispute Greenpeace’s comparison. They say Hilborn has been a leader over the decades in a wide range of important research projects in the North Pacific and globally.
“I think that in general Ray’s work has been highly acclaimed by many scientists. He is not sitting way on the edge,” said Gunnar Knapp, a University of Alaska-Anchorage fishery economist who has collaborated on research with Hilborn.
But some marine scientists have been at odds with him.
They include Daniel Pauly, a University of British Columbia marine biologist who shared the 2006 Volvo prize with Hilborn. Pauly has authored numerous papers about the global decline in fish stocks that have been attacked by Hilborn as lacking creditability.
In an interview, Pauly criticized Hilborn as an industry-friendly scientist who has failed to properly disclose his funding.
“We all are certainly affected by where we get money from, and certainly have to make that available for discussion,” said Pauly whose own affiliations include an unpaid seat on the board of Oceana, a major marine-conservation group.
Hilborn said he draws money from a wide range of sources, and rejected the notion that he has been swayed by industry money.
That money is not a problem “but a natural part of working on solutions,” Hilborn said. “They (industry) should be paying part of the bill.”