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Feature Story
Deadly Sonar
Page 4

Not long after I arrived in Halifax, I spent the morning at Whitehead’s kitchen table discussing how he felt the financial structures of marine-mammal science -- particularly in the United States -- had become distorted. He and Weilgart are paid, he told me, through their Dalhousie salaries and through grants from the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, which gives them a five-year budget for general programs rather than specific projects. ("It encourages efficiency in research rather than in grant writing," Whitehead noted dryly.) In the United States, where he and Weilgart have advocated the creation of an independent council for marine mammals, the situation is quite different. Part of the job description of many of his colleagues, Whitehead told me, was to bring in, beyond their salaries, $200,000 a year in research grants. Universities, he said, have become de-pendent on this money; it has become a factor in granting tenure and therefore in career success. "A lot of my colleagues spend 50 percent of their time chasing money, and this can become corrupting, especially in a situation such as exists now in which the navy and the oil and gas industry provide so many of the grants."

It’s hard to deny the navy’s need for sonar -- its ships are highly vulnerable to silent submarines -- and there is no doubt that the navy is concerned with whales, if only because high-profile strandings tend to cause public relations problems and calls for restrictions on sonar testing. But it doesn’t follow that the navy is the best institution to dominate the funding of academic research on marine mammals. The navy’s research, according to its critics, obsessively focuses on hearing thresholds -- on "controlled exposure experiments" to determine how loud and how close to whales its sonar can be operated before it affects the animals’ behavior or causes temporary or permanent hearing loss. "The navy’s been doing hearing-loss research for 15 years," Balcomb told me.

There’s an aspect of navy marine-mammal research, moreover, that’s closer to engineering than to pure science. A navy spokesman characterized the work funded by Robert Gisiner as "figuring out how to make sonar work." (Gisiner wouldn’t comment for this article.) Sara Wan, a member of both the California Coastal Commission and the federal advisory committee on acoustic impacts on marine mammals, observed to me that navy research grants are project driven. In this kind of situation, she said, the questions you ask are going to determine the answers you get. "The navy is driven to look at the effects of its sonar because it wants to use its sonar."

Any argument that the navy took a disinterested approach to the outcome of its research became harder to make in 2002, when NRDC, in the course of filing suit against a proposed deployment of low-frequency sonar, discovered a series of e-mails between Gisiner and Joseph Johnson, the navy’s environmental manager for its low-frequency sonar system. The exchange concerned a negative appraisal filed in a publicly accessible environmental-impact statement by a group of scientists. Johnson e-mailed Gisiner to ask if they were navy-funded. When Gisiner said they were, Johnson responded that their comments were "negative and…out of the box. If they are funded by the navy, the proper way to bitch is via the sponsor (you)." To which Gisiner replied, "I pretty much told them as much in a scorching phone call. I think they had some inkling that they might be about to take our money and make themselves look good to the enviros too."

As we spoke on these matters, Whitehead nodded toward my coffee mug, which was purple with bold gold script spelling out the acronym ECOUS. "That’s Environmental Consequences of Underwater Sound," he said, "a May 2003 conference in San Antonio at which I gave a paper on the funding issue written by Lindy, Luke Rendell, and myself. The conference seemed to be in honor of Bob Gisiner. Speech after speech toasted him for his years of work as head of the marine-mammal section of the Office of Naval Research until, toward the end of the final day, I stood up and blasted his office for the ways in which it distorted marine-mammal research. Among other things, we accused them of being narrow-minded and focused on hearing damage and asked why it was that the gas and fat emboli thesis had been developed without navy funding. When I finished, you could have heard a pin drop."

Whitehead later gave me a copy of the speech, and it was indeed brutal. In their paper, he, Rendell, and Weilgart argued that ONR-funded marine-mammal research was not just "narrow-minded" but also "arrogant" ("only we [the navy] can understand the complexities") and "frequently wrong." They pointed out that dissent was regularly squelched and that as a result of "direct ONR funding of most major U.S. marine-mammal bioacoustics labs," marine-mammal science was suffering from a credibility gap as well as a "massive and archetypal case of conflict of interest."

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OnEarth. Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council