Friday, October 4, 2013


My review of the new movie "Blackfish"

There was a house in New Oooorleans

It’s all about the funding …

Just moments ago another advertisement for an academic position came across my desk with the words “must have a strong track record in fund-raising”. There was no mention of proven teaching ability or published research.  This seems to be an escalating trend in universities. A few months ago I had a meeting with a university administrator to talk about what counts towards getting tenure as a faculty member. I was basically told recruiting students and developing programs didn’t count; neither did mentoring students whether graduate or undergraduate. Leadership in, and recognition by, professional societies – doesn’t count. Poor teaching evaluations would count against you, likewise if you weren’t producing at least a few peer-reviewed publications a year.  But the number one criterion seemed to be getting money for the university through outside research grants, and only research grants – getting money for the university through attracting meetings to the campus, from having popular and well attended classes, or through attracting more students to the university, basically didn’t matter.

That meeting left me dismayed and depressed about the future of the university. I came back to academia after working for an environmental NGO, which I left because I was frustrated at spending the majority of my time raising money for administrative costs instead of achieving the aims of the organization (i.e. marine conservation). What I wanted to be doing was using my scientific knowledge to make an impact, helping to conserve threatened species and also trying to inspire and train young conservation scientists to make a difference. I thought that a university would be the best place for this. The above administrator made me feel like I was working for a business where making a profit was more important that education, intellectual innovation or making the world a better place.

Around the same time one of my graduate students informed me that a faculty instructor had advised a class to do research, not in what intellectually inspired them, or what they felt was important, but “where the funding is best.”

Over the past two decades government funding for research across the board has steadily decreased (when adjusted for inflation; Skyler 2013). With government budget freezes, sources of funding for external research projects are declining, have been completely axed, or the government agency employees are applying for them themselves to maintain projects and staff – with insider knowledge that makes it effectively impossible for outside academics to compete for these grants. Foundations are still offering grants, but government agencies are also applying for these grants to make up budget shortfalls, increasing competition for academics. Likewise non-governmental organizations, which may historically have been a source of funding for academics, especially those of an environmental bent, are now competing with academics for grants, as opposed to offering them, with increasing numbers of staff specifically dedicated to this task.

The budgetary forecast for government funding looks increasingly bleak as, with an expanding and ageing population, more government funds will have to be dedicated to programs such as Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security. The only area of government funding that seems to be unaffected is military spending, and military-oriented research (Skyler 2013). Linked to these spending forecasts, funds will also be available for biomedical research. The pharmacological industry will stand to benefit from an increasing and ageing population, and associated increased healthcare spending.

There is a science-fiction series on television at the moment called Continuum. The show portrays a dystopian future where everything is run by corporations and the military. Is that what we are heading towards in academia, where faculty will be pressured to do research with military or medical applications so that one day these will be the only research fields? Already the university’s greed for external grants is stifling my academic freedom – I have been pushed by certain Deans in the past to develop grants and write proposals for topics I am not particularly interested in or don’t think are important, just because there is funding available and a possible overhead for the university. Conducting projects that interest me, and may actually have big impacts in terms of environmental practice and management, is effectively looked down upon by the powers that be because they don’t bring big money into the university coffers. This financial situation also encourages a climate where overheads, salary and equipment go to university coffers instead of, for example, financially struggling graduate students or conservation practitioners and environmental groups in the developing countries where many of my projects are based.

I returned to academia because I wanted to find out why things happened the way they did, and because I had ideas about the way animals or people behaved, and because there were threats to the environment and I wanted to test if my hypotheses about them were correct. I didn’t want to spend my life filling in forms and making up budgeting spreadsheets, although I was willing to do that to a reasonable degree. If I had wanted to spend most of my time doing that, I would have become an accountant. It’s not the best use of my academic training and brain cells.


The current model of university research funding is unsustainable. US government projections for expenditure are going to be increasingly invested in health care and the military. Moreover, industry will quite frankly use their own scientists, so we can’t look to them for funding in the future – their in-house scientists are cheaper, faster and will give them the answers they want, not the answers the data support. Not only will this future environment restrict the range of research projects that are pursued, but there will be increasing corporate influence over the interpretation and disclosure of results.

 This is certainly evident in my field of marine mammalogy. The US Navy funds 70% of all marine mammal research in the U.S. and 50% of marine mammal research worldwide (Weilgart et al. 2004). There is evidence that the US Navy has used the threat of withdrawing funding to stifle comments from academics (Whitehead & Weilgart 1995; Weilgart et al. 2004)*, something which I have personally experienced., Some years ago, US Navy representatives called my university president and several Deans to note my comments about the impacts of navy sonar on cetaceans  and the fact that the Navy funds several university research projects, in a not terribly veiled threat. In the environmental consulting field this has long been recognized – the client often dictates the conclusions of a study, because if a client isn’t pleased, contracts and funding aren’t renewed (see Wright et al. 2013).

 The funding situation is unlikely to improve in the future and will likely get much worse. This will impinge on the whole nature of a university as a place of academic freedom to make new discoveries and to push back the boundaries of knowledge over a wide and varied selection of fields and disciplines. If the university continues the way it’s going, downplaying teaching and mentoring of students in favor of making money, it will stifle academic freedom. Or it could reassess its priorities and think about innovative ways to develop independent sources of research funding. If not, the universities of the future may only have two departments - engineering and biomedical science - and be little more than the research wings of the military and Big Pharma.


Skyler, J. 2013. Why you don’t “Fucking Love Science”. Published 17 Sept 2013.

Whitehead, H. and Weilgart, L. 1995. Marine mammal science, the U.S. Navy and academic freedom. Marine Mammal Science 11: 260-263.

Weilgart, L., Whitehead, H., Rendell, L. and Calambokidis, J. 2004. Response to “Resonance and Dissonance: Science, Ethics, and Sonar Debate”. Marine Mammal Science 20: 898-899.

Wright, A.J., Dolman, S., Jasny, M., Parsons, E.C.M., Schiedek, D. and Young, S. 2013. Myth and momentum: A critique of environmental impact assessments. Journal of Environmental Protection 4 (8A2): 72-77.

 *See also: Administrative Record, August 6-9, 2001, Natural Resources Defense Council v. Evans, 279 F. Supp. 2d 1129 (N.D. Cal. 2003).


The sequester and conservation science

The budget sequester has limited federal spending, but the penny pinching has impacted conservation. The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), the international professional body for conservation scientists, estimated that because of the sequester at least 200 federal conservation scientists who normally attended could not go to this year’s International Congress for Conservation Biology (the largest meeting specifically for conservation scientists) in Baltimore. Even though the congress was so close to DC, many federal scientists were prohibited from attending, even ones who volunteered to do so in their own time, on their own dime. The sequester also resulted in government agencies reneging on pledges for funding. The SCB estimated that they had lost a minimum $150,000 because of the sequester that could have gone to conservation projects or helping developing country conservation scientists or students. The total cost to conservation is incalculable however, when you consider lost opportunities to make vital connections with leaders in the conservation field, and to discover and learn the latest conservation science knowledge and cutting-edge techniques.

Friday, August 30, 2013

An example why captive dolphin studies should not be used to make conservation decisions

The marine mammal research listserve MARMAM has just posted a paper appearing in the journal Aquatic Mammals (Rechsteiner, E. et al. 2013. Seasonal resting metabolic rate and food intake of captive Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). Aquatic Mammals 39(3) 241-252) which  concludes:

"Our estimates of resting metabolic rates and relative changes in total energy intake can be used to parameterize bioenergetic models needed to estimate the ecological impacts and energetic requirements of Pacific white-sided dolphins in the wild, which will have conservation implications."

The partner paper in a different journal (Rechsteiner, E. et al. 2013. Energy requirements of Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) as predicted by a bioenergetic model. Journal of Mammalogy. 94(4) 820-832) also says that the study has useful data for conservation.

But if you look in the MS thesis from which this paper is derived you find:

“The extent to which my results are representative of dolphins in the wild is uncertain given that the behaviours and activities of dolphins in aquaria do not necessarily mimic those of wild dolphins. I am also uncertain whether the occasional heating of the water in the dolphin habitat at the Vancouver Aquarium influenced my results, and I recognize that my conclusions are limited by the small number of animals studied.

Despite such shortcomings, the data collected from the three individuals represent the most comprehensive energetics study conducted to date with Pacific white-sided dolphins, and the only cetacean energetics study that has spanned multiple seasons and examined both resting metabolic rates and total calories ingested”

(p. 49 in Rechsteiner, E. 2013. Testing metabolism, energetics, and seasonal distribution of Pacific white-sided dolphins.  MS thesis. University of British Columbia).
Throughout the papers and thesis are statements about how these data can be used to inform management, in particular issues relating to how many fish dolphins consume and therefore potential conflicts with fisheries.

My first thoughts when I read this were this could immediately be used by certain bodies to try to justify culls of dolphins. Japan already has a large take of Pacific white-sided dolphins (86 dolphins were hunted in the 2010-2011 season; and could use this study to justify that by taking more dolphins they are protecting fisheries.

But really how representative of the thermoregulation and energy use of wild populations are data from 3 individuals that live in a heated pool (in contrast sea surface temperatures in the winter off of British Columbia drop to 3oC), who move limited distances. Pacific-white sided dolphins can move 10s of kilometers in a day, and importantly, are known to migrate, including southwards to warmer waters of Southern California during the winter (e.g. Leatherwood et al.  1988.  Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the Eastern North Pacific and Adjacent Artic Waters. New York:  Dover Publication). So how representative of wild populations really is this study? Probably not very, yet conservation decisions could be made on this study, which the authors appear to be encouraging, but how many managers will read the caveats?

One of the problems with captive cetacean facilities is that they are so desperate to suggest that they have value in the modern world, especially to conservation, that they fiercely push and publicize the few studies that they produce. However, if managers do use these studies they are likely making the wrong decisions as the behavior and ecology of captive animals is vastly different to wild animals. For example, using studies on the sound sensitivity of captive cetaceans (which may suffer hearing loss due to high noise exposure and medical treatments) to predict the impacts on wild populations have wildly underestimates the sensitivity, and therefore underestimate man-made noise impacts on, wild cetaceans (Wright, A.J. et al. 2009. Urging cautious policy applications of captive research data is not the same as rejecting those data. Marine Pollution Bulletin 58: 314-316; Parsons, E.C.M. et al. 2008. Navy sonar and cetaceans: just how much does the gun need to smoke before we act? Marine Pollution Bulletin 56: 1248-1257).

So, my take home message is, studies on captive whales and dolphins have limited applicability to the actual ecology and behavior of wild cetaceans, and as a such using these studies to make conservation, management and policy decisions is inappropriate and possibly even detrimental.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Walk the Walk don't just Talk the Talk - why environmental scientists should set an example

A couple of years ago, I was involved in the organization of a major environmental conference, and we went through excruciating steps to make sure all the food and drink supplied was as environmentally friendly as possible -- locally sourced, organic with as small an environmental impact as possible. Although this was appreciated by most of the delegates, we were shocked when
several environmental scientists and conservation practitioners demanded to hand back their meal
packs and have their money returned, so they could buy food at the local burger bar. We told the
delegates in question that (a) as the food had been ordered and paid for, the NGO organizing the
event would basically have to pay for the cost and make a loss, and (b) we would not be able to resell the food and would have to dispose of it. (Although in the end, we had so much returned we
found a local food bank willing to take a proportion of the returned food, so it was not all thrown
away.) This, however, did not make a difference, and they demanded a refund for the sake of a few
dollars savings with an extremely environmentally unfriendly vendor.

The conference also had an optional “carbon fee” that went towards replanting and wetland
restoration projects, in a bid to offset the environmental impact of delegates jetting around the
world. Unfortunately, few participants subscribed to the scheme. These “ungreen” behaviors had a
big impact on myself, colleagues and students who were helping to organize the meeting. These
practitioners in question were talking about environmental protection and sustainability in the
meeting rooms, yet when it came to it, did not “walk the walk” at a very basic level in their personal lives.

I have also seen this at a university level. At a retreat to discuss developing environmental
programs, a colleague (who went on to become our university’s lead on sustainability on campus) and I went through a trash can after the meeting to pick out all of the aluminum cans that had
been tossed in the trash instead of the can recycling bin right next to the trash can. I’ve also seen
several environmental departmental colleagues from my neighborhood drive past me as I walk the
35-minute walk/10-minute cycle to campus, even though there is a campus bus stop at the end of
our street. If a group of faculty in an environmental department cannot be bothered to make a
minimal effort to recycle, or travel more environmentally responsibly, what hope is there with the
general public?

My final grouse – a common one among department faculty -- is with the building our department is housed in. The flickering lighting, the leaking roof (although now asbestos free), the  cracked flooring, dripping faucets and the best petrochemical –based fixtures the 1960s and 1970s  could provide. Quite frankly showing new environmental studies students or visitors around the  building is almost the equivalent of trying to  impress them by picking them up in a rusting Hummer. It’s a bit of an embarrassment.

Since 2007, my university has laudably pledged that its new buildings on campus would be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver Certified, and thus should have design features and materials that conserve both energy and resources, plus minimize waste. Buildings are sprouting up all around our campus -- blink and there’s a new building. So why doesn’t the university invest in a truly green building to house, and showcase, its environmental programs, i.e. a LEED Platinum Certified building. Other universities in the state have such buildings, but not us, despite having the largest Environmental program in said state. Such a building would be advantageous for marketing our programs for students, and well as serving as a teaching tool.

One of my undergraduate students did a small survey (n=68) of  our students to gauge their support for such a building. When asked, "Would you like to have a 'green' building on campus?" an overwhelming 85.3% said they liked the possibility of having a "green" building on campus. Half of those strongly supported the idea; less than 3% were against the idea.

This was despite the fact that half of those surveyed thought that such a building would cost substantially more -- 16% thought they cost less and 35% didn’t know. However, a staggering 94.1% believed that a “green building” would be good for the university's image, with 69.1% stating that it would be exceedingly positive. Only one person thought a green building would not help the university’s image at all. So this preliminary information suggests there is support from the student body. Sustainability features prominently in our university's new vision statement, so come on administrators, walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Academic tantrums

Yesterday I got an email from someone who was rejected from a conservation conference that I'm hleping to organise for a wildlife conservation society. They had a tantrum - lots of exclamation marks and capital letters saying that it was unfair they were rejected and they will never ever go to any meetings by the society and will resign their membership.

I was asked by someone outside the conservation field whether it was usual that we get such childish and temperamental responses to rejections. Sadly we often do - whether it be journal rejections, job rejections or conference rejections.

However I also told that person that anyone who’s been in the academic business for anytime though gets used to being rejected by journals/journals and takes it in their stride. And anyone who is in conservation really cannot be a good conservation biologist if they go berserk at the slightest slight or hard knock, and have such a fragile ego. Conservation is often about conflict, and trying to resolve this conflict through reasoned argument and diplomacy. You often get knocked down, but to quote Chumbawumba, you just have to "get up again".

I’m really of the opinion that someone who is really childish, temperamental, rude etc , will not last long in real-world conservation (sadly they may last longer in academia, but that's another story).

But that person will be a pain in the butt in the field, and so their resigning or refusing to go to your conservation meetings is like natural selection, weeding the weak and unfit from the gene pool. If they are going to ditch the meetings of the Number 1 society for conservation academics over something like this, then it’s their loss not ours …

So if you get rejected for a journal, meeting "suck it up buttercup!" and to quote Wil Wheaton "don't be a dick".

Easter musing

I was just wondering how Fox News and other right wing pundits would treat a high profile person who: disliked the bad behavior of banks and money lenders; said you should pay your taxes; supported a women's right to do what she wanted; was anti-violence; advocated giving benefits to the poor and universal healthcare; who in fact offered health care for free ! Oh and was Jewish and a foreigner to boot.... Happy Easter !

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The dark side of St Paddy's day

I like an excuse to go out drinking as much as the next man, especially if the next man is a raging alcoholic, and the St Patrick's day celebrations in the US are a great excuse to go out, be merry, and listen to "diddly-diddly" music. As someone who has a lot of immediate family in Northern Ireland (my sister's side of the family and assorted nephews, neices and cousins) and who has spent quite a bit of time there, I laugh off many of America's strange perceptions of how the Irish celebrate St Patrick's day - leprachauns, green-dyed budweiser etc.

What I can't laugh off is those that joke about "Irish car bombs". The cocktail is about as Irish as Antonio Banderas - it was invented in Conneticut in the 1970s. As I witnessed over the weekend, many "Irish" American's think the name is hi-lar-ious. However, as many Americian tourists have found out, ordering one in a pub in Ireland itself, whether North or South, will simply earn you a steely stare, or possibly a slapping. The Irish don't think car bombs are the least bit funny!

During "the troubles" 3,526 people were killed, of whom 1855 were civilians. An additional 107,000 people were injured, crippled or maimed for life. This may not seem a huge number, but compare it to 341 US and UK deaths in the first Gulf war, or 3,517 US combat casulaties in the Iraq War.

Moreover, Ireland has a very small population and few families were uneffected by the troubles. To put it into context, one person in 50 of the Northern Irish population was killed or injured during the troubles and as a result hardly any families were uneffected. I personally remember having bomb squads and police visiting and evacuating my elementary school in England because of bomb threats, and classmates at school crying because their father (in the army) had been killed in Ireland.

So to the "real" Irish, an "Irish car bomb" is about as an amusing name for a cocktail as one called "the twin towers plane crash" or "the Sandy Hook massacre"... just sayin'...

Friday, January 18, 2013

The weary traveller returns

Paradise Bay, Antarctica
After a month of travelling I'm finally back, and find myself stuck in from of a computer with syllabi to write and over 1000 emails to deal with.
So until I can get over the backlog, here are a couple of pics from my adventures to whet your appetite ...
Paradise Bay, Antarctica
Tierra Del Fuego National Park, Argentina
Humpback whale calf, Antarctica