February 13, 2015

Keith Kloor: "Agricultural researchers rattled by demands for documents"

Until now I have resisted any temptation to address political issues in the modest endeavor that is this blog. Instead, I have focused exclusively on recent reports in the plant literature that might have importance to plant science professionals or students of plant biology. I also include research seminars from eminent scientists that visit our institute. In addition, I have a number of educational posts either up or in the works, which I hope to complete between awaiting manuscripts that want finishing. Today, however, I would like to mention a political issue with some relevance to plant science since it impacts the way we conduct research and reveals an important chasm between the public understanding of what we do and what we do. I refer to a recent news item by journalist Keith Kloor published this week in Science.
The full citation is here:

Science 13 February 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6223 p. 699 DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6223.699

And the original article can be found here.

In it, Keith explains a new tactic by foes of plant biotechnology that takes advantage of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, compelling public scientists to hand over their emails and other other correspondence. The requests were filed by the group US Right to Know (USRTK) allegedly to investigate possible improper dealings between public research scientists and private industry partners. I say "allegedly" because this particular group has a history of anti-GMO activism and appears to be motivated by a strict ideology that is not evidence-based. They are also motivated by a desire to embarrass public scientists and disrupt their work. That arouses suspicions this new approach might just be an exploitation of a legal resource to harass and derail scientists doing legitimate research that certain individuals feel ideologically opposed to due to their personal worldview. This seems even more likely considering the scientists who are the subjects of these requests are all outspoken supporters of biotechnology who have engaged with the public to defend and promote the usefulness of this technology. Most or all have done so via an industry sponsored public outreach webpage that explains issues in plant biotechnology known as GMOanswers. One of the targeted scientists, Kevin Folta, has written about this incident on his blog here. The non-profit website Biofortified, an academic webpage which similarly promotes plant science, has covered this story here.

I have mixed feelings about the use of this legal resource to accomplish activist ends. On the one hand, it is perfectly legal, and it makes little sense to criticize a group for taking advantage of this approach when it is their right to do so. After all, FOI requests have been used before to good end to help maintain accountability for public resources and discourage abuse. Part of developing and maintaining the public trust in science is being transparent to the scientific process and forthcoming about the dealings of scientists with private entities. No one doubts private companies would happily sway public researchers to publish biased results in their favor if they could pull it off. Public scientists, on the other hand, have quite a bit to lose from being so swayed. In fact, they stand to lose the only thing they really have as public figures: their integrity. That makes it unlikely a public scientist is going to be bought on the cheap by a private company and sacrifice their brand that allows them to prosper, apply for grants, develop a research group, publish, attend conferences, and so fourth, all for just a fistful of dollars. An independent research position is a life's achievement for most scientists and it makes no sense that someone would throw that away to please a private company.  It would have to be a tremendous amount of money for an average scientist to go over to the dark side like that, and I have not seen any evidence of the corresponding truckloads of money that would compensate a scientist for risking everything they have fought for their entire professional life. So the notion that there is really something legitimate to expose with these requests is a bit murky to begin with. Weren't FOIs invented to prevent elected officials from embezzling and starting needless wars? How did it become a tool to harass scientists?

Instead, it seems much more likely that USRTK just wants to foul things up for some prominent scientists who have used their voice and position to advance a technology that those activists are opposed to. Even worse, anyone who remembers ClimateGate has been through this before and knows that activists are anything but even-handed when they get a treasure trove of their adversaries emails that they can spin any which way they please. When someone is motivated by their ideological bias, of course they will take statements out of context and spin that one email in 10,000 to make its author look as guilty as possible. That is what they are dedicated to. No one expects Greenpeace or PETA to be honest when they can stretch the truth and make their opponents look bad. But what is the value exactly of their activities compared to the contributions of public researchers to solving real problems of famine, disease, and climate change? If enduring the harassment of less-than-stable anti-GMO activists if the price we pay to also have a legal resource we can use to hold all public figures accountable, then so be it. But why is this same tool rarely (or never) applied to preventing the invasion of certain Middle Eastern countries or exposing legitimate graft? How is it justifiable to train this considerable nuisance on public researchers who were never elected to hold pubic office and already publish their results in peer-reviewed journals for all the world to see? Their expenditures and uses of public funds are already subjected to more scrutiny that their detractors will ever know in their lifetimes. Is there really an urgent public interest in taking a group of highly trained public professionals who already operate on an incomparable level of transparency and forcing them to divulge every detail of who they ate lunch with, what future research lines might be suitable for private industry collaborations, and how their kids are doing? To what extent are we willing to tolerate a few extremists hijacking a legal tool to disrupt vital public research? Yes, public scientists interact with private industry. Doesn't that make more sense than an ivory tower academia far removed from the realities of our economy? Anyone who remembers Kenneth Starr and the pretty penny he spent to expose some rather vanilla White house peccadilloes knows that there should be a clear and urgent public interest at stake or we risk an expensive fishing expedition that squanders resources and reveals little more than fodder for comics and our own humanity

It is precisely the notion of public-private collaborations that groups like USRTK claim to be especially worried about . But I find this incredibly ironic, even naive, given the change in course of publicly funded research in the last ten years. At least here in Spain, nearly every single publicly funded grant program REQUIRES a partner from private industry. Ditto at the EU level. Without a private company as a collaborator, at least in Europe, it is now nearly impossible to fund public research. We are required to collaborate with private companies, whether we want to or not, and tailor our research more and more toward eventual commercial applications if we want to survive as scientists. But at the same time we are vilified by activists for doing so, threatened, and intimidated. The sword and the stone if I may. We could not make the scientific profession less appealing if we tried, and the chilling effect this will have on the research community simply goes against the considerable effort of public institutions toward fostering collaborations with private industry. We are being pushed into it and punished for it at the same time.

Why don't the political forces that promote ever tighter cooperation with private industry now come to the defense of public scientists who dared do what grant funding agencies demanded of them?

I am all in favor of FOIs when there is a legitimate public interest at stake. But do we really need to turn public research upside down because a few anti-GMO activists with tin foil hats are alarmed that public scientists might actually want to convert their hard won research findings into reality beyond the laboratory and find they need industry partners to do it?

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