FOIAs Chilling a Scientific Dialog- Your Call to Communicate

One morning in early February I received an unusual email.  It was from my colleague here at University of Florida, Dr. David Oppenheimer.  It simply said, “FYI”, and was followed by a note from university General Counsel that email records were demanded back to 2012 under auspices of Florida Sunshine, or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws.

Suddenly a popup window ignited in the corner of my screen—you’ve got mail!  It was a public records demand for my personal interactions with a slate of agricultural companies, trade organizations, communications firms and NGOs.  What did David and I do to precipitate this intrusive request?

We taught science. Kevin Folta

David and I had answered questions on GMOAnswers.com, a website sponsored by companies such as Bayer Crop Science, Monsanto, Dow, and others.  The website is intended to provide a portal for public access to independent academic and company experts that could address their questions about transgenic crop technology.

The website launched in 2013, and I was eager to participate.  Throughout my scientific career I’ve read about transgenic crop technology and today endlessly contemplate its applications in helping the environment and the needy, as well as the farmer and consumer in the industrialized world. I have never shied away from public interaction on the topic.  I found activists and concerned citizens to be a lot like me in terms of lifestyle and politics—I just knew more about this technology.

I’ve regularly shared this information via my blog and during frequent public talks, even engaging audiences that do not appreciate the implementation of such technologies.  For the most part, these are concerned people that have been fed a steady diet of bad information, and it is a pleasure to introduce them to the facts as presented in the scholarly literature.

From my perspective, the GMOanswers.com website offered a visible venue to continue this outreach.  It provided me a place to communicate with a public hungry for independent answers.  It was this participation that activated the prying into my personal emails.

This public records request claimed to target scientists participating in GMOanswers.com. However, it has a total of fourteen public scientists in its crosshairs, scientists that simply interacted with the public around topics of agricultural biotechnology. Many are ASPB members.

The request comes from US-Right to Know (US-RTK), an Oakland-based NGO, that makes the allegation  ”these professors are closely coordinating with agrichemical corporations and their slick PR firms to shape the public dialogue in ways that foster private gain for corporations … or … act as the public face for industry PR.” They suspect collusion because our interaction with the public matches and reinforces concepts in plant biology espoused by the seed manufacturers.

What they fail to realize is that our words parallel company claims because both are distilled from a scientific consensus built upon decades of data.  The answers to the public’s questions would be similar from anyone that understands plant biology and the application of transgenic techniques to agriculture. To US-RTK, this isn’t a badge of scientific consensus; it is the red flag of a conspiracy.

David and I have no research or personal funding from “Big Ag”– only in our dreams.

We work for a state where GM crops are just about as rare as snowflakes.  We’re also rather resilient in our syntheses of the literature, and there’s not an ag company, PR firm, or ninja rappelling from a Monsanto black helicopter that can coerce our word choices or how we communicate these concepts to a curious public.

US-RTK’s actions have been chilling. Such intimidation stymies desires for an already largely silent body of qualified, trusted academic and government scientists to reach out to non-scientists about any ag technology.  Notes from postdocs and new professors have stated that US-RTK’s unprovoked cyber surveillance is why they decline to interact with the public in “controversial” areas.  This is harassment that ices outreach.

That said, should our personal emails, which certainly include interactions with these companies, be subject to inferential biased analysis, cherry-picking, and distortion in the interest of tarnishing us?  The US-RTK’s conclusions, no matter how untrue, will soon resonate and propagate throughout a rabid activist electronic media primed to discredit public scientists, a la Climategate.

Unfortunately, yes, these types of information requests must be allowed. Transparency laws are important.  It is the abuse of these rules that needs to be stopped.

How do we do that?

First, as scientists we need voice our outrage about such tactics.  We need to broadcast our disdain over news, local and social media, exploiting the same amplification tactics that the US-RTK and their ilk are already using. We must use our credibility to decry the expensive abuse of an important system that is being used to impeach, and potentially tarnish, the reputations of public scientists to the ironic delight of the activists’ own industry supporters (US-RTK is well funded by the Organic Consumers Association).  Disgust motivates the middle.

More importantly, as scientists we all need to better connect with the public in the pop-controversial areas of science.

We must be conversant in the consensus syntheses of climate change, vaccines and transgenic crop technology.  We all need to actively integrate into the science/society interface, teaching, and interpreting the scholarly literature.  We must be honest, communicating the strengths and weaknesses, risks and benefits, to maintain and expand public trust.

If everyone in our plant science community was communicating science only a few minutes a week, the paid full-time activist infrastructure would be overcome by expert testimony.  We would win the trust of a public that simply does not know what to believe, and allows fear to govern its decisions over facts.

We are living in a time when applications of technology for agriculture and medicine will only come faster, and new breakthroughs will coincidentally kindle newfound resistance.  A malleable, comfortable, and scientifically un-savvy public will bend to activist-manufactured risk.  To move science’s discoveries from the laboratory to widely accepted application will require all of our participation, and communicating with a curious public must become a priority mission for us as scientists.

Sign the petition

If you would like to show your support for Kevin and the other targeted scientists, please sign the Cornell Alliance for Science #Science14 petition and share it with your colleagues.

5 thoughts on “FOIAs Chilling a Scientific Dialog- Your Call to Communicate

  1. The attacks on science and scientists must come to a halt. We can have a return to the Dark Ages of the early 1900s, because some folks are afraid of what progress will bring and because of the Greed of others.

    It is as wrong for an activist group to try to silence science as it is for any corporation to or for the government to.

    Scientists look to science not profits or electability or personal biases. Science doesn’t care what your position is, it is unbiased.

    We need Science to deal with our heavily populated, mobile changing world. An epidemic in a country tens of thousands of miles away, can land in the ER of the hospital you take your child to. The famine of a region thousands of miles away can encourage both war and migration, that will have impacts on folks in the developed world.

    We need scientists that are willing to talk to the general public, instead of being afraid and retreating to their labs and classrooms.

  2. Cairenn, as Kevin wrote: ” these types of information requests must be allowed. Transparency laws are important. It is the abuse of these rules that needs to be stopped. ” But I’ve really scratched my head and haven’t come up with a solution that supports the intrinsic value of the ability of people to use the FOIA to keep track of what our government is up to and at the same time prevent abuse. The law itself makes it clear that the motive of the requester can’t be used as a reason to deny the request. Which makes sense, or anyone with anything to hide would simply claim “motive” as a reason to not provide the data. I’m all ears. I’d love to hear a way out of this conundrum, that preserves the freedom of information and also prevents abuse.

    But I can’t come up with one.

    For instance, lets assume that Kevin is getting kick-backs from Monsanto, the problem is he would use the same argument, that the requests were an abuse, even if he wasn’t. (Sorry Kevin, just making a point, not suggesting there is a shred of truth to this). But if you deny US-RTK’s request (the only one asking), nobody would know how Kevin was affording that Lamborghini he drives, those expensive Italian suits and those long vacations to Bora Bora.

    Ultimately I think that Kevin will come out on top (Vegas gives him 3-1 odds) just based on what kind of person I think he is based on his many articles, blog and posts. He may, like in “climate gate”, get a bruise or black eye if he said something that could be taken out of context and end up in a meme trotted out by the antis. But ultimately, I believe the truth wins out, and ultimately those who seek to denigrate someone by selective editing end up being hoisted on their own petard.

  3. Uhmmm… one of the conclusions of the Climategate debacle is that scientists should be more transparent and honor FOIA requests [1]. The request doesn’t seem to concern private communication between scientists, but focus on correspondence with trade and PR groups. If such correspondence existed, it could truly be problematic and should be made public to avoid even the slightest impression of collusion. Such a relationship would severely undermine the independence and hence credibility not only of the targets of the FOIA but of the entire field.

    [1] http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Data+without+the+doubts%3A+the+climategate+furore+has+galvanised+the…-a0257556897

    • Naim, I the point is, when the requests are purely nuisance requests, do we threaten the system by honoring them? It encourages others to file requests against any scientist, just to threaten or intimidate them.

      First, tell me what I did wrong. Right now I do nothing except defend science, as derived from peer reviewed literature. I’ll tell you my motivation– it is what the evidence says is correct at this moment.

      There. No FOIA, no coercion. I can honestly answer any of their questions. They don’t want that. They want to cherry pick emails to harm reputations.

      The climate guy was off base- talking crazy talk. That’s why FOIA works. I should not have to relinquish correspondence because I say the sky is blue, just because you work for the Red Sky Company.

      I hope this helps. Kevin

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