by Judith Curry
There is a remarkable and disturbing story playing out in the biotechnology academic community over industry funding related to genetically modified food.
Some context is provided in this Wired article from last Feb entitled Anti GMO activist seeks to expose scientists’ emails with big ag. Excerpts:
After receiving a FOIA request from US Right to Know—a nonprofit dedicated to exposing “the failures of the corporate food system“—the University of Florida notified Folta, a food and agricultural science professor at the university, that he would have to turn over all of his e-mails relating to correspondence with 14 different firms involved in agribusiness.
The request is a response to public arguments by Folta that genetically modified foods are safe. Prominent scientific organizations agree with Folta on GMOs. “Every…respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion,” reads a 2012 statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
This is in stark contrast to the general public, only 37 percent of whom believe that GM foods are safe. And various activist groups believe that organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science may have fallen victim to a massive and well-orchestrated industry PR campaign.
Chassy points out that it was part of his job, and the job of all food scientists, to build bridges between universities and industry. To smear anyone who works with industry, he says, would be to relegate research to the ivory tower and cut higher education off from important funding sources.
“As a department head I have not always been sure about the proper relationship between a university and industry,” he says. “That’s an important discussion to have, rationally and publicly. But these requests are not about rational dialogue. They are destructive, unethical, and immoral. They are looking for words to twist and take out of context.”
“When someone is saying things that are against the scientific consensus, then you ask yourself: ‘What’s going on here?’” he says. “But when people are producing work in line with the scientific consensus there’s no reason to go on a witch hunt.”
A rather hyperbolic update is provided by the Riskmonger blog- Anti-GMO McCarthyism: Its getting shilly out there. Excerpts:
Twitter and Facebook have been abuzz over the last eight days with blitzkrieg attacks on pro-GM scientists or anyone that questions the claims of the pro-organic lobby.
Open, communicative, intelligent, energetic and kind: these are character traits of University of Florida professor, Kevin Folta, that made him Public Enemy #1 for the organic industry’s attack on GMOs. They have been using the US Freedom of Information Act to troll through millions of personal emails of 40 pro-GMO academics (provided to Ruskin at US taxpayer expense) in the hopes of finding some juicy information.
On Folta, they found that Monsanto funded University of Florida a total of $25,000 USD earmarked to organise and travel to 12 science communications events. So out came the attacks that Folta was a liar, hypocrite and Monsanto shill. Folta had said in the past that he had never received funding from Monsanto for research, and these travel expenses for science communications events were clearly not part of research funding (and for anyone who has ever organised events, 25K is actually peanuts).
I deeply respect not only Folta’s integrity, but also his courage and perseverance to engage the mudslingers. But as it is said on the farm, if you want to wrestle a pig, prepare to get muddy.
There is no bigger wrestler in the shill-pit than Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He took his shots at Folta on twitter, calling him a liar, shill and a despicable person. Taleb has been on an emotion-laden campaign against Monsanto (perhaps to promote a paper he had published last year on precaution that has not been well-received) and has reduced the debate to name-calling anyone who disagrees with him. The irony is that the author of the Black Swan had, in that seminal work, very clearly articulated the risks of confirmation bias, so his unwillingness to listen to other ideas or those who disagree with him is surprising and quite disappointing.
Like McCarthy’s campaign of intimidation, with the organic lobby’s fight against GMOs, free speech, open thought and public discourse suffer in the endless barrage of zealous allegations. Civil liberties and the right to pursue research have succumbed to pressure from the moralistic mob waging war on science. The haunting thought is that unlike McCarthy’s Washington in the 50s, today we have social media to amplify any crank’s microphone.
Kevin Folta responds
Folta has been very active in responding on twitter and on blogs. Here are two posts:
From an interview with Folta on Talking Biotech:
Within these documents were private discussions with students, friends and individuals from corporations, including discussion of corporate support of my science communication outreach program. These companies have never sponsored my research, and sponsors never directed or manipulated the content of these programs. They only shared my goal for expanding science literacy.
I am a public scientist that has dedicated thousands of hours of my own time to teaching the public about science.
It is absolutely clear how this has changed things. People call me rather than email…we’re talking little seed companies, fruit growers, you name it. They don’t want their names, companies, questions to be out in public. Their competitors can FOIA me to find out what they are thinking.
I know that no young scientist will ever enter into public discourse around any controversial topic in my state. If you dare work in GMO policy, surveys or research… if you work on climate or sea level rise… if you work in fertilizers or pesticides… if you work in any area with an activist push-back– you’re going to be dragged through the mud for your life’s work.
Should there be zero connections between corporate/industrial interests and university research? Should it be limited to sponsored professorships (where the company gives the university money to pay for the salary and maybe lab startup funds, but has no control over who is hired or what they do). Should corporate research grants be allowed, which lets them push for specific directions of research, but not control the results or what is published? Or should there be full scale collaboration projects between academic and industrial researchers? What limits should there be?
Another thread of this drama is playing out in response to a blog post on PLOS blogs by Paul Thacker and Charles Seife entitled The fight over transparency round two. Excerpts:
But transparency laws remain a fundamental tool for monitoring possible scientific misbehavior. The fruits of that labor are plain to see: UCS has itself cited internal scientists’ communications to make the case that science has been corrupted in instances involving ghostwriting, the manipulation of scientific data at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the altering of scientific conclusions at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Despite the potential for abuse, transparency laws are potent weapons in investigators’ pharmacopeia and will be increasingly important in the coming decade as universities become more entwined with corporate interests.
Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers. The article also does not report on an email titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.
UCS maintains that FOIA requests for scientists funding remains fair game, but anything beyond this apparently intrudes into academic freedom. It remains unclear how companies providing canned answers to scientists on scientific topics or scientists advising companies on political campaigns upholds the principles of academic freedom.
Kevin Folta responds [link]:
An entry at PLoS* Biology Blogs, written by Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife, shows the danger of releasing public records to individuals set to attack professors because they dare to teach a facts in a subject steeped in emotional angst.
In a breach of journalistic ethics, this author team published false and misleading information [JC note bolded above]. While Thacker contacted me about other information regarding this FOIA request, neither author contacted me for clarification about this email prior to this vicious blindsiding.
I never had any role as an advisor for Monsanto’s policies and I had no idea where they could have possibly got such ideas. I would never start an email with “CONFIDENTIAL”, so it seemed fishy. I asked them to provide the email they reference, which they kindly did.
Now it was crystal clear. The original email was not written by me, despite what Thacker and Seife imply. I did not write “CONFIDENTIAL : Coalition Update”. The note was sent from someone in the No On 105 camp to Lisa Drake, a government affairs person for Monsanto, which the email clearly reveals!
This email was my criticism of the anti-labeling rhetoric with a person that works for Monsanto. It was hardly me providing strategic campaign advice to defeat labeling as the authors state.
So Thacker and Seife fail to ask questions, and instead manufacture a false interpretation that paints me as some sort of confidential-email spin meister with a master plan on defeating a bill that had been voted on two years before this email string took place.
Wrong author of the email, misrepresented content, wrong date, wrong state, and portraying me as a stooge of the company, when I was criticizing the company. Did they get anything right? Why would they do that?
In the age of the internet, the truth does not matter. The message you want to propagate can be told, and it will spread like wildfire. And spread it did.
My alleged monkeywrenching of the California GMO labeling initiative as a Monsanto secret PR agent has now spread Twitter and is now installed as a permanent part of the “can’t trust scientists, can’t trust Folta” narrative.
Where to start on this one – there are fascinating parallels and anti-parallels with climate research.
First lets start with consensus. Folta stated the GM consensus was as strong as that on climate change. Well probably that is true, but only because Folta is responding to inflated 97% consensus stuff. The GM food issue is extremely complex, one might even say wicked. I follow this issue fairly closely, for a variety of reasons. The most insightful article I’ve seen on the subject is by Jon Foley: GMO’s, silver bullets, and the trap of reductionist thinking. The controversy surrounding Foley’s article is summarized by an article at the genetic literacy project.
I also find it interesting that only 37% of the U.S. public think that GMOs are safe (analogous to the relatively small % of the U.S. public who think humans are causing dangerous climate change), in spite of the declared consensus by experts.
And in one of the interesting anti-parallels with climate change, Chassy states: “But when people are producing work in line with the scientific consensus there’s no reason to go on a witch hunt.” So I guess Grijalva witch hunts against climate skeptics are ok, but there shouldn’t be witch hunts against consensus scientists?
The Union of Concerned Scientists said it is ok to do FOIA to uncover information about funding, but other motivations for FOIA requests violate academic freedom. I’m with Paul Thacker on this one; FOIA requests, when appropriately targeted, have unearthed publicly important information.
The state of Florida has very extreme sunshine laws. But should the state of Florida control the emails a university scientist writes from home on a weekend from a private email account to a colleague or citizen or journalist or employee of a company on a topic that does not relate to the faculty member’s university service, teaching, or research grants awarded to the Florida university? This whole issue of private emails is huge and a major issue in the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
Folta has raised the important point about such witch hunts: I know that no young scientist will ever enter into public discourse around any controversial topic in my state. If you dare work in GMO policy, surveys or research… if you work on climate or sea level rise… if you work in fertilizers or pesticides… if you work in any area with an activist push-back– you’re going to be dragged through the mud for your life’s work.
Folta asks some important questions that need to be addressed: Should there be zero connections between corporate/industrial interests and university research? Should it be limited to sponsored professorships (where the company gives the university money to pay for the salary and maybe lab startup funds, but has no control over who is hired or what they do). Should corporate research grants be allowed, which lets them push for specific directions of research, but not control the results or what is published? Or should there be full scale collaboration projects between academic and industrial researchers? What limits should there be?
I find particularly interesting the fact that a relatively small amount of industry funding unrelated to Folta’s research – earmarked for outreach communications – is sufficient to tarnish Folta as being under the influence of big ag. Folta provides a good retort at Science 2.0. Where do we draw the line regarding industry funding in terms of being regarded as a source of bias? Does funding for travel count? Does an honoraria count (say less than $5K)?
I am following all this pretty closely on twitter – Folta has done a pretty good job of handling this and isn’t playing the victim card.
This episode illustrates how a potentially legitimate FOIA request can get twisted by the media with amplifying effects of twitter that serve to confuse the public and damage the reputation of the scientists. In hindsight, the way the Climategate emails was rolled out, after very careful scrutiny by the targeted bloggers, was handled pretty responsibly. Lets face it – “Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline” means . . . “Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline.”