Mar 16 2015

FOIA Requests to Biotech Scientists

On the SGU this week we interviewed Kevin Folta, who is a biotechnology scientist at the University of Florida. His specialty is strawberries – he is trying to identify which genes are responsible for the intense flavor of wild strawberry varieties. Some of this flavor was inadvertently lost over decades of cultivating strawberries to be big, attractive, and have a good shelf life. He sent me some of the wild varieties he is working with. They produce small (really small) unattractive strawberries that taste amazing. Ideally he would like to figure out how to combine the incredible flavor of some of the wild strawberries with the marketable cultivated varieties.

Kevin is also a science communicator. He does outreach to help the public understand his science, the science of plant genetics, which includes genetic modification. He is publicly funded and so all of his funding sources are fully disclosed. He has no funding from industry, no conflicts of interest.

However, because he is an outspoken critic of unscientific anti-GMO propaganda he has been targeted by the anti-GMO crowd. Their latest strategy is to go on a fishing expedition using freedom of information act (FOIA) requests. The anti-GMO lobby, of course, is not monolithic, and this is one group who is undertaking this approach – US Right to Know (funded by the Organic Consumers Association). They have issued FOIA requests to obtain all the e-mails of 14 senior biotech scientists.

They have absolutely no particular reason to suspect that any of these scientists have hidden connections to the biotech industry, that they are shills, or that their science-advocacy is in any way compromised. This appears to be a pure blind hunt for anything they can use to create the impression that there is a conflict of interest. They justify their request by writing:

“At U.S. Right to Know, we believe the food and agrichemical industries must have a lot to hide, because they spend so much money trying to hide it. We try to expose what they’re hiding.”

The strategy is a win-win for anti-GMO activism. If they turn up any actual undisclosed conflicts (which is a possibility, I don’t personally know all 14 scientists) then they will have a smoking gun they can rant about for years.

If the scientists give any push back, for example by pointing out that this is a massive invasion of privacy, then that will be used as evidence for a cover-up. Most of the scientists have already fully complied with the FOIA requests, and their respective university lawyers are sifting through the e-mails. Kevin has fully complied.

What is most likely to happen is that USRTK will uncover innocent communication between scientists and their colleagues industry and that will be taken out of context in order to create the appearance of a conflict. This is exactly what was done with climategate. If you have a lot of raw material, thousands of e-mails, you can find statements that, taken out of context, might create a nefarious impression. That is all that is needed. This does not appear to be a truth-finding endeavor, but a witch hunt for propaganda material.

No matter what the result of the FOIA requests, it has already had one effect, and that is to have a chilling effect on scientists communicating with the public over controversial issues – the very issues that would benefit the most from experts engaging with the public. This is partly a failure, in my opinion, of the culture of scientists. Scientists should engage with the public and should not back off because a topic is controversial and they will have to deal with cranks and activists. It comes with the territory – deal with it.

At the same time, this does not excuse the abuse by cranks and activists of public scientists. Universities and governments need to offer a layer of protection for scientists engaging with the public as well, which partly means that they need to value such outreach more than they currently do.

These anti-GMO FOIA requests are just one example of the broader picture of interest groups, including corporations, trying to control the public discussion over scientific topics. I have no problem with them participating in the conversation, but they seem to always have more time, energy, and resources than scientists and science communicators. That is precisely because they have a vested interest. They also have a greater tendency in my experience to fight dirty.

Most scientists just want to do research, and the idea of being harassed by activists is probably on the bottom of their list of why they wanted to become a scientist. But that is the reality. The institution of science can only thrive with public support, which means scientists have a duty to explain their discipline to the public and to spend time countering cranks and activists. They also need to police themselves, and in cases of publicly funded science or science with a large pubilc interest to have proper oversight, to ensure honesty and transparency.

I fear that the greatest outcome from the FOIA science 14 episode is that scientists generally will pull back from the public sphere. That is the opposite of what should happen. We need to engage all the more vigorously.

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