Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies

Publicly funded researchers have become integrated into public relations and lobbying efforts by both agricultural biotechnology and organic companies, according to a report in the New York Times. The report is based on emails between researchers and companies obtained through Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Previously an article in Nature reported on FOIA requests for the emails of scientists made by the activist group US Right To Know, who oppose genetically engineered crops.

To shed light on how FOIA requests are impacting the public engagement activities of scientists, GENeS has asked for comments from researchers who have received FOIA requests; researchers who are known for their communications activities but who have not received FOIA requests; and social scientists who study the communications environment around agricultural biotechnology.

 

Dr. Jason Delborne, Associate Professor of Science, Policy, and Society, North Carolina State University (webpage):

Expertise: Science, technology, and society; science & technology policy; genetic engineering and society; politicized scientific controversies.

“Recent reports of emails revealing relationships between university scientists and corporate interests surrounding agricultural biotechnology are likely to create discomfort among faculty who are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as conducting their professional communication (especially emails) in public view. 

“On one hand, these reports fall well in line with a history of critique of and opposition to the alignment between public university research and corporate agricultural biotechnology. Past critique has focused on a mix of conflict of interest concerns and the strategic alignment of public research programs with private agendas through funding and other institutional strategies. What seems new is a focus more squarely on the question of the public voice of public researchers in an area of political controversy.

“In addition, the NYT shows that scientists on both sides of the political spectrum have developed relationships with private interests (e.g., Benbrook with the organic industry, which supports GM labeling). The NYT article mentions that the anti-GMO industries’ “spending on lobbying and public relations amounts to a tiny fraction of that of biosciences companies,” and it would be enlightening to know how significant this imbalance is. Critique of ‘balanced reporting’ on climate change is now a well-known phenomenon, and it is important for journalism to bring the same rigor to the issue of public researchers aligning their work with private interests in the realm of agricultural biotechnology.

“With increasing emphasis on ‘broader impacts’ of publicly-funded research – especially outreach and education – it is perhaps sensible to consider the influence that corporate funding has on researchers’ activities – not solely as producers of knowledge – but as communicators (i.e., when they engage the public in ways that relate to their expertise). It would be tragic if the FOIA requests chilled the enthusiasm of researchers to engage with the public, but my hope is that the controversy over the FOIA requests will spark further dialogue about how researchers at public universities can increase their sensitivity to differences between public and private agendas in science communication.

“From my point of view, there is little sense in hoping – or demanding – that scientific researchers remain unaffiliated or disconnected from ‘interested parties’ – whether they be corporations, activist groups, or professional societies. Instead, we should aim for greater transparency. Do Folta’s ties with Monsanto or Benbrook’s ties with the organic industry discredit their claims? There is no universal answer, but transparency about those ties would allow public audiences and elected decision makers to make their own judgments.

“Lastly, these reports raise the important issue of the public funding for public universities, which not only educate our young people but also conduct critical research and outreach activities. As state and federal funding of research decreases, academics seek out other sources of funds, which may create real or perceived conflicts of interest.”

 

Dr. Paul Vincelli, Extension Professor and Provost’s Distinguished Service Professor, University of Kentucky (webpage):

Dr. Vincelli conducts outreach on GE crops for the University of Kentucky.

“I think there is a chilling effect from FOIA requests made to scientists.  Every time I write something on social media, I worry if I am “sticking my head up” and making myself a target for a FOIA.  I am 100% behind transparency:  I believe we university professors are doing the people’s work and so we are therefore accountable to the public.  

“Most scientists will not venture into public discussion of controversial topics in which they are an expert, because of the tremendous potential for ad hominem attacks.  And these attacks are commonly engendered or made worse by the emails obtained through a FOIA request.  This is not to mention the lost time from work the scientist is passionate about and that can contribute to the public good. I sometimes wonder if I will regret the outreach I am doing on GMO crops.  Talk to me when I receive my first FOIA (we’ll see how I feel then) but for now, I see silence as unacceptable, because so much of the science on GMOs is misrepresented. 

“I think private funding should be acknowledged in a disclosure statement, which has become the norm for many journals.  It is perfectly valid to seek private funding when funding rates for major granting agencies (NSF, NIH, etc.) have fallen tremendously. It only makes sense for researchers to look for any source of funding – whether from chemical companies, fertilizer manufacturers, organic farming organizations, etc – that will help them test valid and important hypotheses.  Report the funding in a disclosure statement, but I want to see the research and I would be a fool to immediately disqualify a paper that may have been partially or fully funded by industry on that basis alone.

In recent years, I have received $4000-14,000 for product testing for crop disease control (entirely non-GMO products). That gives us data useful to Kentucky, and frankly, product testing should be at least partially funded by the manufacturer—the public should not have to foot the entire bill.  And I publish it all—no confidentiality agreements, and no holding back if the product fails. I am tenured, so I really have no meaningful incentive to fall victim to bias.  And my experience with manufacturers is that they know to speak carefully to a public professor and to never put pressure to withhold data from the public domain.”

 

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, Animal Geneticist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis (webpage):

Dr. Van Eenennaam is a well know science communicator.

“The FOIA requests made by US Right to Know to public sector scientists, ten of whom are associated with the University of California, including myself, are very focused on one specific industry – the plant biotechnology industry. But there are many other industries: the organic and natural foods industry, the artificial insemination industry, the animal breeding industry, etc. 

“I work with many different groups and industries in my job. My position description states I am to ‘Establish linkages and interact with the diverse animal industries of the state of California include the emerging animal biotechnology industry… and provide subject matter assistance in genomics and biotechnology with a major emphasis on agriculture and use of products resulting from biotechnology.’

“Every single producer I interact with owns a business and so is part of the ‘agriculture industry’. The FOIA requests only ask for the subset of my email that deals with the plant biotechnology industry. More than 99% of my email correspondence was with other clientele, students, and groups, but that won’t be evident because of the targeted nature of these requests.  

“I give around 100 presentations to groups across the nation annually including a variety of scientific societies, commodity groups representing farmers using conventional and alternative production systems, activist groups and public interest groups. Typically, but not always, these groups pay my travel expenses to come and speak at their meetings. If a meeting involves a flight, unless the group pays travel expenses I would not be able to go. 

“It does cost money to communicate science and host meetings. Public sector scientists typically draw on a number of sources to help cover expenses (like speaker travel costs, room rentals and audio visual equipment) including registration fees, public grants, and sometimes donations or sponsorships from private companies that have an interest in the topic. Indeed, many public conference grants require that industry match the public funds. This is true whether the topic is something controversial like biotechnology, or something non-controversial like drought management.”

“If 2+2=4, no one needs to be ‘enlisted’ to give the answer 4. Scientists that say the answer is 5 are going against the consensus, and it is unsurprising that public sector scientists from universities across the nation are standing up for the answer 4. The fact that it so happens that in this case scientists and the plant breeding industry agree that the answer is 4, does not mean that industry is enlisting anyone to come to that conclusion. Scientists who are teaching the scientific consensus around GMO safety are not heretics or paid mouthpieces; they are simply reiterating the opinion of every major scientific society in the world.”

 

Mikel Shybut, PhD Student, Department of Plant & Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley:

Member of Communication, Literacy & Education for Agricultural Research (CLEAR) group (webpage)

Area of Study: Plant-pathogen interactions, cassava bacterial blight, transcription activator-like effectors, molecular biology

“As a young scientist interested in improving science communication and outreach to the public, it’s scary to see some of the best and most effective communicators being targeted, including Dr. Kevin Folta who has been the focus of recent articles as a result of emails obtained via his FOIA fulfillment. It’s a trial-by-internet that no one would want to go through, but I’m confident Dr. Folta and the science community will be fine.

“I believe in open science and good journalism and am hopeful that the release of these documents will lead to a broader discussion of the important role of public/private collaborations in science. There are many legitimate questions that arise pertaining to funding distinctions and conflicts of interest and this provides an opportunity to discuss them. I think both scientists and the public would benefit from such a discussion.

“There’s a reason scientists support genetic engineering as a tool and it’s not because Dr. Folta received funding for outreach and education. Whether tackling drought or flooding, disease or pests, heat stress or frost, there are tangible solutions that genetic engineering can provide that will help some people. This is not either/or or us vs. them or some vast corporate conspiracy, this is science at it’s best trying to find solutions to contribute to a sustainable future.

“There is no one size fits all food strategy and I think this point often gets lost in the debate about GMOs. Scientists aren’t trying to overturn the organic industry or shut down your local farmer’s market. Organic, conventional and genetically engineered foods can co-exist as they already do and I’d like to see their supporters co-exist too.

“What worries me is the fear. There’s a lot of nuance free, categorical fear spread about GMOs and the recent focus on public university scientists and the personal attacks on Dr. Folta on social media are certainly intimidating. But if we can potentially save citrus by using a gene from spinach or reintroduce a blight-ridden American chestnut tree in its fully immune glory, isn’t that information worth communicating? I think so.”

 

Declared interests (see GENeS register of interests policy):

Dr. Paul Vincelli: “I’ve never received any income or funding regarding GMO crops, nor has the University of Kentucky ever received any funding for my activities on the topic”

Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam:My research funding is publicly available on my webpage, or via a search of the USDA Current Research Information System (CRIS) database http://cris.csrees.usda.gov/Some of the conferences I attend and organize may have company sponsorship.”

No further interests declared.

 

Reference

Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show‘ by Eric Lipton, published in the New York Times, Saturday 5 September 2015.

GM-crop opponents expand probe into ties between scientists and industry‘ by Keith Kloor, published in Nature, Thursday 6 August 2015.

 

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