Exclusive: Q&A with Ray Hilborn regarding conflict of interest accusations
In response to accusations of conflicts of interest made against him by Greenpeace, renowned global fisheries expert Ray Hilborn compiled documents definding his work from leading academic journals in which he published his research, as well as from an official at the University of Washington who helped lead an official review of his work at the university (The documents can be found at the bottom of this story). Hilborn also answered questions posed by SeafoodSource regarding Greenpeace’s claims via email.
SeafoodSource: Do you feel like you’ve adequately disclosed your funding sources and any potential conflicts of interest in your publications and public statements?
Hilborn: As UW, PNAS and Science concluded, I complied with the regulations required by the University and journals. I will now be much more explicit in the future since this has been raised and Science has changed its policies since 2009.
SeafoodSource: Can you explain how industry co-funding of research contributes to better fisheries management?
Hilborn: It would take pages to document all the ways that I know of that industry co-funding has contributed to management. I chaired a National Research Council report on this subject – National Research Council. 2003, Cooperative research in the National Marine Fisheries Service. National Research Council Press, Washington D.C.
SeafoodSource: There is scientific evidence that industry funding of research does influence results (Scientific American, Cochrane, PLOS, etc.). How do you ensure that this does not happen with your own research?
Hilborn: I am sure you would find that industry-funded studies had a different perspective from let’s say Greenpeace-funded studies. This is not necessarily because the funding source influences the results, but that different groups are going to fund scientists whose results have supported their interest.
Much of my recent industry funding has come as a result of the Worm et al. 2009 paper that showed that fish stocks were stable, not collapsing. I discovered that industry would provide more funding for collection of data on status of fish stocks because they could see it would provide a different perspective on fish stock trends that was found in most papers.
SeafoodSource: Has any of your research or data ever been altered or presented in such a way that distorts or misrepresents the truth in order to present a more favorable picture of any of your funders?
SeafoodSource: About how much money have you received in consultancy fees? Or, if you prefer, can you provide an estimated annual average? Have these consultancy fees ever influenced any public statements you’ve made as a fisheries expert?
Hilborn: This has varied enormously over the years -- in the last few years I have done almost no consulting (all of my children are out of school). I do not believe the consulting work has influenced any public statements – a key reason is because I have consulted for so many different interest groups.
Again there is a lot of chicken-or-egg issues here. In legal cases, you will find a great overlap between what the expert witnesses say and the interest of the clients. It is not because the client is paying the expert to find a result, but because the lawyers look for experts whose opinions agree with their clients’ position.
A number of times I have been retained by lawyers to provide an opinion, and when my opinion isn't what they wanted they simply don't use my services. The fishing industry likes the work I do because I tend to look at fisheries as methods of food production, with associated environmental costs. Most marine ecologists look at fisheries as threats to biodiversity.