On transparency, intimidation, and being called a shill

(This piece originally posted to Control Freaks, the UW weed science blog)

A while back, a group of scientists involved in research or communication about various aspects of biotechnology (GMOs) were the subjects of freedom of information requests. Keith Kloor, who broke the story in Science, also posted one of the letters sent to the University of Illinois. The request asks for all emails in the last 2+ years between the scientists and a long list of companies. Gary Ruskin, an activist funded by the Organic Consumers Association, is making these requests while suggesting the targeted university scientists “have been appropriated into the industry PR machine” and are “front[ing] for private corporations.”

These types of sweeping information requests of academics are often used as an intimidation technique; if scientists think every email they send on a topic may be scrutinized to find negative sounding information, they may be less likely to speak out on controversial topics. Or worse, they may stop pursuing that particular line of research or communication altogether. Even for someone who has nothing to hide, the public release of all of one’s correspondence can seem pretty intimidating. Just think about how you would feel if a team of lawyers went reading through all of your email from the last 2 years, with the intent to make public anything that might seem unflattering (especially if taken out of context). Keith Kloor wrote in an update to the FOI story at Nature News:

And that investigation, which began in February, has just started to yield documents. These include roughly 4,600 pages of e-mails and other records from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a well-known advocate of GM organisms. The records, which the university gave to US Right to Know last month, do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto, of St Louis, Missouri, and other biotechnology-industry interests.

In Kloor’s first article on this FOI request, he explained how these broad requests can be used to silence researchers:

USRTK says its requests are designed to promote transparency in a controversial research arena. But some researchers worry they will also have a chilling effect on academic freedom. “Your first inclination … is to stop talking about the subject.” Van Eenennaam says.

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Van Eenennaam. Even though I’m not a target of the FOI request, I’ve become a little apprehensive to continue to write publicly about this topic. I was asked to consider another post for the GMO Answers website a while ago, and dragged my feet for almost a month deciding whether I wanted to continue answering questions on this topic. I have working relationships with many of the companies on the FOI request list (like Monsanto and DuPont). I also have friends and former students who work for these companies. I’ve never tried to hide any of that, but it is uncomfortable for me to think about every word I’ve written to them being scrutinized to find some little nugget that could sound damaging when taken out of context. I don’t want to become a target. And the easiest way to avoid this scrutiny, I suppose, would be to just shut up.

But I’ve realized over the last few weeks that instead of being silent, perhaps this is a good opportunity to explain a little bit about my relationships with the organizations who fund my weed science program. There’s nothing nefarious going on. And this is, understandably, a common question people have. Am I part of the “industry PR machine” or a “front for private corporations” as Gary Ruskin claims? Does the fact that “Big Ag” funds part of my applied research program have the potential to bias the research I do or influence my opinions? Am I a “shill” for the GMO or pesticide industry? Over the next week or so, I will be posting some thoughts on these issues. I hope you’ll keep reading.

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About Andrew Kniss

Andrew Kniss earned his PhD in Agronomy with a minor in Statistics from the University of Wyoming in 2006. He joined the Department of Plant Sciences in 2007 conducting research and teaching in the area of weed ecology and management in crops. Andrew's research program focuses on developing sustainable weed management programs for important crops in Wyoming, especially sugarbeet, winter wheat, corn, and dry edible beans. Andrew blogs at www.weedcontrolfreaks.com, and you can find him on twitter (@WyoWeeds).