Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Conflict of Interest: Hilborn vs. Greenpeace and beyond

Conflict of Interest is a critical concept in science. The reason is that science is supposed to be objective and not overtly influenced by outside groups or personal interests – at least not beyond the choice of WHAT to study, which is quite reasonably influenced by both. That is, the type of research done is acceptably subject to personal and outside influence but the conclusions drawn from the research should be independent of both. Thus, whenever funding is provided by a particular interest group, one must disclose that funding source.

I am motivated to discuss this topic owing to the recent dust-up between Greenpeace and Ray Hilborn, a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. Hilborn is a renowned fisheries scientist who has been very influential at all levels across a broad swath of the globe. A recurring theme in Hilborn’s writing is that frequent claims about over-fishing being pervasive and dramatic are exaggerated. He feels – and his research has often shown – that many fisheries around the world are sustainable, with fish populations often even growing, partly because of sound fisheries management. This picture of fisheries is considerably rosier than the one often painted by some other fisheries scientists by the press and by a variety of environmental groups. Moreover, Hilborn does not pull his punches (the expression “he doesn’t suffer fools” comes to mind) when criticizing the doom-and-gloom perspective espoused by many.

Sockeye salmon caught in the Bristol Bay, AK, salmon test fishery.

Greenpeace feels that overfishing is rampant and that the science supports that conclusion, leading them be at odds with much of Hilborn’s writing. Recently, Greenpeace used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain, from the University of Washington, records of all of Hilborn’s research funding. In a recent online posting, they took Hilborn to task for receiving funding from the fisheries industry but for not always reporting these contributions in his writings about fisheries. They provided some specific examples of papers published in a range of journals – and of articles in the popular press – where Hilborn came to the conclusion (or expressed the opinion) that overfishing concerns were exaggerated; but in which funding from the fisheries industry was not acknowledged. The implication of their article was that Hilborn was somehow influenced by the industry to paint a rosier picture of fishing than was actually the case.

Hilborn defended his record in several ways. First, he provided a pie chart of all of his funding over the period in question, which shows a diversity of sources, including the fishing industry (13% of the total). He suggested it was unclear what sort of bias he was supposed to have given that his research has been supported by government, environmental NGOs, community groups, foundations, the fishing industry, and others. Second, he noted that the accepted practice in science is to report funding sources for the specific work being reported in a given paper, not all sources of funding one has ever received. The latter scenario would obviously be unrealistic as the list of sponsors would be longer than some of the papers. Third, he pointed out that the actual data are not really be questioned, nor are his research methods and approaches.

I took a personal interest in this story because I did my PhD and MSc at the University of Washington in their School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (then the School of Fisheries). I worked in Alaska for the school’s Alaska Salmon Program, which received some funding from the fisheries industry. More directly, I worked for several summers at a remote field camp in Alaska with Ray Hilborn and his family. Finally, I published two papers with Hilborn based on work done by students with who we both collaborated (Gende et al. 2004 – Oikos; Carlson et al. 2007 – PLoS ONE). Throughout all of this, my experiences with Ray have always been positive, I have the utmost respect for his science, and I have never had any thought that he might be influenced by industry when conduct his science or expressing his opinion. In short, like many other scientists, I am fully in support of Hilborn and his science.

Yet the broader issue isn’t so cut-and-dry. A critical point about conflict of interest is not just that you shouldn't have one (or that you should state it clearly if you do), but also that you need to avoid the PERCEPTION that you might have a conflict of interest. Indeed, some journals (such as Science) ask you to disclose any funding sources that COULD BE PERCEIVED as a conflict of interest. And here I think that Hilborn – and everyone else – can probably do better.

I worked for 10 years - some of them with Ray Hilborn - at this University of Washington camp on Lake Nerka in Alaska. It's development, maintenance, and operation was partly funded by the  Pacific Seafood Processors Association.
Consider the generally accepted practice of only disclosing funding sources in a paper that are specific to the work being reported in that paper. Now imagine an extreme situation where a particular industry (let’s say tobacco) funds nine out of ten of your papers. The tenth paper is also relevant to that industry (it shows that a particular chemical found in tobacco does not have negative health effects) but it was based on research not directly funded by that industry (perhaps NIH funded it.)  I suspect that a number of people would quite reasonably worry that your tenth paper was influenced by the tobacco industry even if it wasn’t directly funded by it. Thus, I suppose an outsider who doesn’t know Hilborn and his work might feel that not disclosing, in every paper he writes about fishing, that he has received considerable funding from the fishing industry is misleading. Similarly, others might think it misleading if he doesn’t disclose his considerable funding from environmental groups or from government.

Of course, every paper one writes can’t list every specific funding source that one has ever received – it would indeed be too cumbersome. However, it would certainly be easy (and short) to simply list the broad classes of funding sources that one has received, perhaps even overall amounts for each of those sources. Indeed, Hilborn’s pie chart makes clear that he isn’t “in the pocket” of industry or anyone else for that matter – and Hilborn and his colleagues have been using this to great effect. Combine broad-brush historical reporting like this with a listing of the specific funding sources for the research in the specific paper, and you should be covered.

The main reason the PSPA funded the UW work in Alaska was because we ran a test fishery in Bristol Bay to help predict salmon returns. I helped with this test fishery in two years. Just after the second year, the ship sank and everyone onboard died, including the gentleman in this picture, Blake Grimstein. He was our able, helpful, and congenial Captain for the test fishery.

In closing, I doubt very much that Ray Hilborn is influenced by the fishing industry in the conclusions he draws about fishing. I also think that his research is likely to be the most defensible of any out there. At the same time, I can see how outsiders might PERCEIVE a conflict of interest, which might cause some people to think a bias exists. Thus, I suggest that in any situation where people might worry about a conflict of interest in your work, that a sentence be added to the end of your acknowledgements that simply says something like: “Our research programs have been funded by a diversity of sources, including governments, foundations, NGOs, community groups, and industry.”


1. Both of the papers I published with Ray Hilborn acknowledged industry funding. However, none of those papers had anything to do with fishing, and so I doubt anyone would care regardless.

2. I have a long personal and professional relationship with Hilborn, as detailed above. We have also repeatedly talked about working on grants for future work in Alaska. And - perhaps most importantly - I follow his daughter, Anne, on twitter. 

3. I have, occasionally, been a dues-paying member of Greenpeace, which I think has done some great (and some not-so-great) work in raising the public’s consciousness about environmental issues.

4. Conflict of Interest is also important to discuss in other aspects of science, such as reviewing and editing - but I do not touch on those aspects here.

Friday, May 6, 2016

How to be a (new) professor

I have been marching through a long series of “How to” posts for young scientists. The last few posts have been about getting a faculty position, so it now seems appropriate to ask what you should do when you get one. I suppose the post could have been titled “How to get tenure,” but the title I chose emphasizes a process rather than an end point – and many aspects of the process continue following tenure. Nevertheless, I will follow this “How to be a (new) professor” post with a later one on “How to be an (old) professor”, with the distinction roughly being pre-tenure versus post-tenure.
Please bear in mind that I am not saying I do all of these things well – in fact, I did/do some poorly, as I am sure my colleagues and students can attest.

Try to postpone your start date. Nearly every faculty member I have spoken to at my or any other institution has complained that their lab wasn’t ready when they started their position. Indeed, no matter what time frame the contractor/university gives you, it will take longer – sometimes much longer. This problem will delay the start of your research program – sometimes substantially - and can be very stressful for new faculty members. One way to reduce this problem is to postpone your formal arrival at the university as long as you can. The typical postponement is 1-1.5 years depending on when you accept the position, but I have seen some that are even longer. This strategy increases the chance your lab will be ready, allows you to do more postdoctoral work (the benefits of which are extolled here), allows you to recruit students, and gives you an opportunity to submit research grants. All of these outcomes help you to hit the ground running when you arrive. Of course, delays can persist even if you postpone your arrival – but a postponement greatly helps. Also, note that some universities or departments might not allow postponing your arrival.

Take a teaching/service holiday if you can get one. All research universities want you to get a good start on your research and so will grant you a one-year postponement of teaching and service responsibilities. You should definitely take this as concurrently building your research program and teaching/developing new courses is a recipe for stress and for subpar performance in each area. However, note that postponing your arrival (the above suggestions) often negates additional postponement of teaching and service.

Source - but see the end of this post

Don’t be too greedy. Advice about negotiating faculty positions often emphasizes how you should bargain hard and get as much as you can possibly get out of the department and university. I don’t agree. Bargaining too hard makes you seem selfish, arrogant, and greedy, and can thereby damage relationships with your Dean, your Chair, and your colleagues. As one direct example, you might hold out for more space and you might get it; but, unless a lot of free space exists in the department, getting more space can mean taking space away from your colleagues – and they will know it. Also, a larger start-up can mean the Department has to take money from some other activity. The same general point can apply to salaries. If you negotiate a huge salary, and your salary is known (as is often the case), faculty who have been around longer but are paid less can resent it. I suggest asking for similar amounts of space as other faculty in the department with comparable research and for similar salaries to other recent professors.

Say yes to all requests that help your colleagues and don’t hurt you. As soon as you are a faculty member, you will immediately be besieged by requests to be on various student committees. I would say yes to ALL of these. Here you have a great opportunity to help your colleagues and their students at minimal cost to yourself. I say the cost is minimal because the time you invest in being on a student’s committee is trivial in the big picture (I would guess 2-4 hours – to read a proposal and sit in the meeting – per student per year). Moreover, turning down a request to be on a committee can offend the faculty member who suggested to the student that you be on the committee – and that is never a good idea.

Take some students right away. Sometimes the temptation is to hold out for the “right” student, but being too picky can excessively delay your research program and can act against you in reappointments and grant applications. Moreover, determining the “right” student is hard, if not impossible. I personally think that success in graduate school is hard to judge at the outset, no matter how carefully you attempt to vet a given student. Indeed, I have heard many instances of faculty who were absolutely sure a student would be great, only to have the student fall far short of expectations. Conversely, I have heard many other instances when a student who was unimpressive in interviews turned out to be outstanding. Thus, it is much better to take a student or two in your first year than to try to hold off for who you think will be the perfect student.

Don’t be too demanding of your first students. New faculty members have relative few students, and so the early development of their research program depends heavily on those students. Moreover, new faculty members have relatively few other demands on their time. As a result, new faculty often interact a ton with their first students. This intensity of interaction can be great for the student, but it can also be problematic if the faculty member relies to overtly on the student for the success of their research program. This kind of pressure will not help your students – and therefore won’t help you either. Try not to micromanage. Try not to tell them that your next grant or tenure or whatever depends on their success. Related to this point, new professors tend to have over-high expectations for students, partly because they presume their students will be like themselves. Remember, however, that the average professor trains only a few future professors and so, in principle, only a very few of your students will be as successful as you were. Regardless, all of your students will have unique skills and contributions – and all can form a valuable – indeed vital – part of your research program.

Don’t spend your start-up money too quickly. I screwed up on this one. My view as a new professor was that I should immediately have my lab fully set-up to match my vision of what my lab would need for the next ten or more years. I therefore bought really expensive (top-of-the-line) equipment based on my expectations of what my research program would look like – before I actually had students doing research! As a result, some of the equipment turned out to be not of much use or was overkill because my research program morphed rather quickly depending on funded grants and student interests and so on. If I had hoarded my start-up and only bought what I needed when I needed it, I would have had considerably more flexibility for longer. (However, make sure you know the deadlines and requirements for spending your start-up – or it can be taken away from you.)

Focus on publishing and research. Evaluations of new faculty, including for tenure, are usually based on some weighting of research, teaching, and service. At a research university, the first of these categories is usually formally weighted the most and informally weighted by far the most. You must be a good researcher, the primary measure of which is publications (and often grants). Hence, most of your time should be dedicated to research and its publication. Teaching is also important but, to be honest, most reappointment and promotion decisions merely require you to be an adequate teacher teaching an adequate amount. I suggest you teach the required amount (but not more) and that you concentrate on quality over quantity in your teaching. Importantly, however, the TIME investment should be greatest in research – and within that arena it should  be greatest in publications and then grants. As for service … well, do your share but don’t seek this out – it will come to you soon enough.

Participate in community-building social activities. The extent to which people like to engage in social activities at work is highly variable and some people can resent (or at least be very uncomfortable with) continual encouragement to participate in those activities. If social activities make you really uncomfortable, then you certainly shouldn’t overdue them. However, social activities that build a sense of community in your unit are an extremely important way of integrating into a department, building collaborations, sharing ideas, and helping to make your department more collegial and more than just a collection of individuals.

Seek out interactions and collaborations with your colleagues. One of the most rewarding aspects of being in a particular university department is interacting and collaborating with your colleagues – I love it. Try to meet with and discuss all aspects of research and academic life with your colleagues. Seek out and pursue logical collaborations and build the familiarity networks that might allow future collaborations. Of course, some of your colleagues may come to annoy you (not my colleagues, of course) and some of the collaborations might not work out; but those failures should be more than made up for by the successes.

The network of interactions among ecology and evolution faculty at McGill circa 2007 (courtesy Gregor Fussmann). Each circle is a person and each line represents at least one paper or grant. Many more links would exist now.
Have lab meetings, perhaps jointly with other professors. Lab meetings are an essential part of building a community within your lab and sharing knowledge and ideas – many rewarding collaborations and discussions and arguments and opportunities and papers have come from my lab meetings. However, a new faculty member often has very few people in the lab, which reduces some of these benefits. One option is to join the lab meeting of another professor with a similar or complementary set of research interests. These joint lab meetings can really help your students and will help build bridges across laboratories.

Social events with your students. Following from the above two points, a sense of community in your lab will be enhanced by lab social activities, such as going out for drinks or lunches or having Christmas parties or lab retreats. These activities not only foster friendships with your lab but they make your students more comfortable interacting with you – because they now know you a bit outside of work. However, it is critically important to not engage in, or promote, any activities or discussions that could be considered (or perceived as) harassment in any form. So make sure that the social events are in appropriate settings and at all times carried out with respect and equality.  

Relax - it will be OK. For some reason, new faculty worry tremendously about tenure. However, tenure rates are extremely high and so the chances are very good that you won't have any problem. You don't need to kill yourself. Although perceptions are that faculty work extremely long hours, which can be the case, many professors have a nice work-life balance with a reasonable number of working hours. Being a faculty member is probably something you have long dreamed of - so make it fun and rewarding, not stressful and demanding!

I could write more but this post is already rather long, so I will save more ideas for an upcoming post on “How to be an (old) professor.”

Here is a link to the earlier "How to" posts, some of which are shown below.