When shark researchers talk about a food fight, the disputed prey is usually a sea lion or a dolphin. But when Mike Neumann, a shark diver based in Fiji, used the phrase in a recent email to LiveScience, he was talking about researchers and grant dollars instead of fish and marine mammals.
The small community of scientists studying sharks recently entered the spotlight when several science blogs anonymously received a picture of a gruesomely wounded shark. The shark in the picture, known as Junior, was a great white that had been tagged by marine biologist Michael Domeier during one of his two seasons on the National Geographic Channel’s series “Shark Men.” In order to study great whites’ migration patterns, Domeier pulls in sharks with a dull hook, lifts them into a boat, and tags them with satellite tracking devices.
The picture, a still from a video, was accompanied by a message implying that the injury had been caused by Domeier’s tagging methods. While researchers usually hook sharks by the mouth, Junior was accidentally hooked in the throat, which was the location of his injury as seen in the photograph. “My concern is that other scientists or media hounds will try to do this again,” the person sending the picture wrote, identifying himself only as a “shark enthusiast.” “Heck, who knows how many of these sharks have already been severely impaired as a result of this same researcher’s made for TV science.”
But when the full video was released this month, it became clear that Junior’s injuries were the result of a fight with another shark, not a consequence of being tagged. LiveScience ran an article with the headline, “Shark, Not Man, Attacked Shark, Video Shows.” The still that was sent out anonymously showed only the shark’s head, making it seem that his only injury was where he had been hooked by Domeier’s team. The video, however, showed that he had injuries throughout his body and that these injuries were clearly bite marks. “When you look at the full video and not that image it clearly shows that the injuries on the shark are from other sharks and not from his capture method,” said David Shiffman, the marine biology graduate student and blogger who obtained the video through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The contents of the full video make it apparent that whoever sent out the single frame of Junior’s throat injury did so knowing that the image was deceptive and that it would lead people to incorrectly blame Domeier. “The images that were originally released to the media were intentionally misleading in an attempt to discredit the important research that I am conducting,” Domeier said. Neumann, the shark diver, was even more specific in his allegations, stating, “This is a malicious campaign by competing researchers.”
While there is no hard evidence that other researchers were behind the release of the photo, it seems like a good guess. Competition in research science is often intense, with scientists battling for money as well as prestige. With his prominent position on “Shark Men,” Domeier is a clear target for lesser-known rivals.
Scientific competition sometimes drives progress. If the ornithologist Alfred Wallace had not been poised to take credit for the idea of natural selection, Charles Darwin might never have published his own exploration of evolution. As the geneticist Steve Jones told The Guardian on the 150th anniversary of the theory’s unveiling, Darwin “had prevaricated for 20 years and would have done so for another 20 if he hadn’t realised someone else was on the trail.” Over 100 years later, the competition between the publicly funded Human Genome Project and the privately funded work of Celera Genomics was a significant factor in the rapid sequencing of first large chunk of the human genome. Now, as NASA scales back some of its space operations, it hopes competition in the private sphere will help fill the gap. Several multi-million dollar prizes have been created to ensure that fledgling aerospace scientists have something to compete for.
But while competition can speed progress, it also has the potential to create jealous scientists who will then produce bad science. I have written before about several cases in which ulterior motives, both political and financial, led to the publication of research that was misleading. Scientists looking to gain clout by generating actionable predictions for global climate change may have silenced sceptics and overstated their own certainty. And the quest for a catchy ad to fight obesity made New York City’s health department decide wordplay mattered more than nutritional reality. The world of pharmaceuticals, with its juxtaposition of research and money, is particularly fertile territory for shaky science.
There is a genuine scientific debate at the heart of the controversy over Junior the shark. Tagging marine animals poses some risk, and existing methods are not ideal for large sharks like the great white. Domeier himself acknowledges this, and has temporarily halted his work because of it .
At the same time, however, our ignorance regarding great whites’ migration patterns could mean that they are entering dangerous waters. Healthy competition might spur marine scientists to develop a safer method of tagging so they can resume tracking the sharks.
The misleading picture’s release was prompted by a different kind of competition. A shark might have been the one to attack Junior, but a human was behind the attack against Domeier. Not all sharks are in the water.