Thursday, August 6, 2015

Contributions, Funding and Outreach

Over the last few years, in addition to my job as a researcher and a department chair, I have been fumbling through the Talking Biotech science communication program.  It started as a series of talks to "teach the teachers" designed to help students, faculty and staff become conversant in how to talk about, and teach, biotechnology concepts.

The program used to be called Bio Talknowledgey, but I had to ditch that name because I could never remember how to spell it and sent people the wrong URL all the time.

But as time went on, this has evolved into a slick, effective and well in-demand program that is a lot of fun to deliver. 

It is not just biotech, as the same concepts have been applied to other areas as well, such as climate, vaccines and even evolution. The program is expanding to cover other aspects of communication training too.

The program and its funding were discussed in Nature today, by Keith Kloor, and I felt that some additional clarification might be helpful.

Communicating the Science of Science Communication:  this is Talking Biotech, my science communication program that was sponsored by contributions from a variety of sources, including the Monsanto Company. While some will point to this as some sort of influence, it is 100% used to for outreach and training in communications.  You are welcome to contribute too:  Follow instructions at

Part of the US-Right to Know public records request undoubtedly will reveal the interactions around this program, which is fine.  I've done the workshop at several universities over the last year and there is a lot of interest from industry in funding the program.  After all, helping people understand science is a good thing. Unfortunately, it is expensive.

I put the word out about this with friends, former students, whatever...  and I've found support from several corporate entities, including Monsanto.  That's cool.   One of their employees was at a student research and communication function at UF and he suggested they might be willing to even fund a conference for student participation.  That's really great.

So Monsanto provided funds for 12 of my outreach talks and to sponsor a larger multi-speaker workshop with many students and postdocs participating. Again, no control of content, no suggestions on what we'd teach, but funding for facilities charges, to provide lunch (it is a 3-4 hour workshop), and move speakers (airfare, hotel, taxi, etc).  Again, that stuff is expensive.

Monsanto does not, and never has, funded my research in any way. 

Who else funds this?   When I give talks I do not accept an honorarium.  I feel that it is my job to provide talks free of charge, as a public scientist. So when I do speak, I request that an appropriate  donation be made to my outreach program.  This account contains kind donations from the US Pork Board, an LED company, Manitoba Canola Growers, Mosaic Co, and others that don't come to mind at the moment, but there are a number of sources contributing.  I should make a "Thank You" page on my site for sure.

The slides are available online at .  You can leaf through them and you'll see that they 100% supported by scientific evidence.

  • The program has nothing to do with my podcast, other than sharing a name. 
  • The outreach program also has an outreach component for extension agents and specialists. This will be available this year.
  • The outreach program includes a component for teaching citrus greening in grade schools. 
  • This program also will generate short videos on new transgenic crops that have not been commercialized, like citrus. 
I'm grateful to anyone that wants to fund science communication.  There is no federal or state support for such endeavors and any action must come from other support.  

If you are interested in having me come do a workshop for your school, please see for details.  Coming up:  U. Maryland, U. Conn, and a few others.  Lots more in 2016.  

This is about teaching scientists how to talk about science. While it will be spun by many to be some source of undue collusion, it is easy to see that the content is factual, based on evidence, and 100% in line with the scientific consensus. 

As always, I'm glad to answer questions.  You certainly are invited to contribute.  No funds go to me or any personnel-- they go 100% to defray travel costs, buy a tray of subs for the students, and pay fees for facility rental. 


Mary M said...

It's so bizarre to me that academics working with Chipotle and Clif Bar are lauded in the NYT for making expensive food for the well-fed.

But you try some education and it's verboten.

As I noted elsewhere, though, certainly the biggest threat to anti-GMO folks is education. Just like it is with creationists. So I can understand why they want to put a stop to it.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused. Why would you consistently say you had not received money from Monsanto when you had? Why would Monsanto offer it and you accept it in view of how it would be spun? Just seems dumb.

mac knowles said...

I suggest you read the article...that might clear it up. Educational program, science, kids, snacks.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you read my question. I have no problem with how the money was used.

Anonymous said...

Been a big fan of this blog fore a long time. Surprised and disappointed not to get a response to my question. I think maybe you screwed up?

Giovanni Tagliabue said...

Dear dr. Folta, stay strong with your action!!!
2 suggestions:
1. I see a problem with the financial support to your Talking Biotech program: many people - including myself - will neve ever send a check by snail mail!! I'd strongly suggest to open a Paypal account!!!
2. The Talking Biotech website does not have a "Contact" page/link: this is necessary for anybody who declares he wants to talk"
Best greetings from Lombardy, Italy!

Wolfgang Nellen said...

Dear Kevin,
The problem to accept industrial sponsors for activities like yours is immense. We have managed an educational program on a much smaller scale without external funding, actually with no funding at all for the last 20 years. This was done by charging fees from the schools and especially by enthusiastic voluntary work by my students and myself. Nevertheless we frequently were accused to be lobbyists and to be paid by “agroindustry”. Since apparently it does not make any difference if you accept funding or not, we now decided to accept industrial sponsors (at some point it just does not work anymore without external funding).
Have you ever tried to include “good sponsors” like e.g. Whole Food or anti-GMO foundations? You could offer the same influence on your teaching topics as you give to Monsanto (i.e. none).
We have tried this once with Greenpeace without success. They finally said something like there was no public interest in science education and that explaining science was much too difficult and not their major focus. But we are only a very small organisation. A stronger effort to include the GMO opposition may be worth it: if they agree to cooperate it’s good, if they don’t it is worth a press release.
I am curious to hear your opinion.

Dawshoss said...

I couldn't find a place to email on the talkingbiotech website but, boy would I like it if you came here to Humboldt State University. Our county just last year passed an initiative banning the growing of gmos (with no real opposition, though I tried on a Facebook page...), only 3 of our k-12 schools are adequately vaccinated (ie having over 90%) with fear running rampant about Gov. Brown's new mandate, and only a couple years ago did the town of Arcata (in which HSU resides) narrowly defeat a measure to get rid of fluoridation in our drinking water. Chiropractors and acupuncturists probably outnumber actual doctor's offices around short, if there's any place that needs your help it's probably here.

I'm not a member of the faculty myself (waiting on an opening), although I do know some personally... But would love for this to happen, if there's any way I can help let me know.

Dawshoss said...

Scratch that, it's worse than I thought, we're #2 for the county with the most unvaccinated kids in CA.
Please come before we all inadvertently kill ourselves >.<

Dawshoss said...

Thought: can I or someone else do an FOIA request for the emails of US Right to Know employees, or at least those of the major heads of the organization? Honest question as I'm no lawyer...

At the least, an attempt, even with a refusal might make for good media optics.

AussieAlaskan said...

Such a question/comment from "Anonymous"?

Maribeth Curley said...

It's absolutely vital that scientists learn how to talk about their research and their subject effectively -- there are so many fearmongers spreading rumours and untruths, it's the only way that we can fight against those. Kudos to you for your outreach program, and its funding model. It's a great way to give back.

Maribeth Curley @ UP Communication

Kevin M. Folta said...

Because they don't sponsor my research or me. Going forward, I will dedicate 30 min of each 50 minute talk going into every one of the hundreds of people that supported the outreach program, even if the lecture has nothing to do with outreach. The problem is that when I do outreach, I'd discuss outreach sponsors. If talking about research, I'd discuss research sponsors. Now everything must be discussed always-- we live in the age of gotchas and I have to do it just to be playing defense against bad people that want to destroy careers.