Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Silencing Public Scientists

Last week I received a FOIA request that all of my emails bearing certain terms were going to be obtained and turned over to an activist group.  US-RTK, a San Francisco-based activist group, namely Gary Ruskin, wanted to know my ties to Big Ag and their PR arm.  

The first thing I did was pick up a phone, call Gary Ruskin, and say, "What can I tell you?"

We spoke for 10 minutes, he seems like a decent guy, but what's the deal with assuming that I'm guilty of something before even talking?  I'm not one to do things the hard way, the expensive way.  I'm glad to talk openly about anything. 

Those closer to the situation tell me I'm naive, and that US-RTK wants nothing more than to see me removed from the discussion on ag biotech.  In their estimation, US-RTK does not just want truth, they want words.  They want emails.  It is not about a scientists and what he or she does-- it is how they can make public records into something they are not. 

This is an expensive fishing trip to harm public science. 

The bottom line is that my university operates under the Sunshine Law.  Emails are public information, just like my funding, my salary, my cholesterol levels, and everything else about me. 

Still, there are privacy concerns, not by me, but by the university. Turning over student information, proprietary information or medical info could get them in a lot of hot water. 

So, for to meet this request, my university has to pull all of my emails after 2012 and have legal types go through them, one-by-one, to make sure nothing they turn over has sensitive information. It is going to cost a fortune. 

Why do we have such Sunshine Laws?  They actually serve a good purpose, allowing mechanisms of transparency to find information quickly in the event of some malfeasance by public employees.  That's helpful.  

But when an activist with a mission sees a public scientist effectively talking about science, and they need to shut up that scientist, the FOIA is an easy way to do it.  It works for several reasons.
  • First, many faculty will not want to endure this level of personal invasion.  We know our emails are open property, so why piss anyone off?  If they are like me they are too busy to have secret email addresses and careful re-reading of correspondence for potential alternative interpretations.  If you don't push the envelope and simply do the job, middle of the road, nobody's too upset. 
  • Second, it is enormously expensive.  Universities have funds set aside for such things, but in the days of lean budgets, it is unfortunate that tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars have to go to malicious nuisance requests.  These are not investigating specific impropriety, they are looking for something to cause harm to reputations of public scientists.  It is a taxpayer-funded fishing trip for a "gotcha", nothing more. 
  • Third, it discourages faculty from engaging, especially young faculty that are trying to navigate the Tenure and Promotion process.  
  • Fourth, they can use words out of context to harm the reputations of scientists. Just look at Climate-Gate. 
The threat of being under the microscope scares people to death, not because of what they have done, but because of what those running the microscope want to find, and what they will do with any information once obtained.  Words out of context, a sentence misinterpreted, Climate Gate 101. They can't be trusted.  These are malicious intents aimed squarely at scientists that dare to teach and communicate peer-reviewed science. 

Here's an email I sent to someone today at Ketchum today about the Atlantic article on the Food Babe. Ketchum is one of the companies where US-RTK seized my correspondences. They'll get this one too, so I gave Gary Ruskin something to read.

So what next?  I'm fortunate to not be afraid of this.  I stand by everything I have written.  I've never received a penny for an answer on GMO Answers, or even coaching on what to say. Those are my words.  I own them and I always will. 

Somehow I'll be portrayed negatively and they'll use my words against me.  Yes, I speak my mind, no, I don't think of other interpretations.  No, I don't care either.  I have a job to do that needs to be done, and the minute I'm wasting time re-thinking about how some goof with an axe to grind against Monsanto is going to use my language to harm me... I'm done.  That's not what I was hired to do. 

I'm also fortunate to have a university administration that will back me, that sees this as an assault on academic freedom and an abuse of an important transparency system. 

I'm just a damn teacher that wanted to stay in the public sector. I still go to kid's classrooms, still mentor students, still answer one hour of emails a day from folks that just want to know about food technology.  That's what they will find. 

I've offered US-RTK to discuss things openly and freely, but they don't want that.  No problem. This will backfire on them.  Schools are broke, he's costing them money.  Scientists are hanging on by threads and he's costing them time and trying to harm reputations.  Anyone that needs to sift through my private emails to achieve their political ends might just check to see what happened to the Climate Gate folks. 

Those that stole the emails came off looking horrible.

Michael Mann and the others only gained credibility and got stronger. 

The earth still got warmer. 

The science didn't change, just because activists didn't like it. 

Total backfire.  And the meaner this one gets, the harder it will backfire too. 

I have to run, I have to work on a talk for a huge audience tomorrow, on biotech and science communication.  Damn right the FOIA request will be in the first slides.  That letter is how you know you are being effective. 


Mary M said...

Thanks for standing strong, Kevin. It is a service that many can't do, for the reasons you state. I've also had researchers thank me for being out there because they can't. Some are afraid that activists will threaten their kids.

If there's anything we can do, like send you emails from an Illuminati address or something, let us know.

Kevin M. Folta said...

Thanks Mary. This is energizing. I had a few speaking engagements come up that I can't do, but now I'm going to find a way to get them done.

I also will show the US-RTK letter in my talk tomorrow and in every talk I give. It shows the desperation of an activist movement.

In a way, this is the BEST thing that could have happened.

Mary M said...

I agree on this having some real value too. Now they have demonstrated exactly what kind of thugs they are.

“When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” --Maya Angelou

Anonymous said...

This really infuriates me and is wrong on so many levels. Please continue to fight the good fight. And best wishes to the other scientists that are being subjected to this for standing up for science.

Bernie Mooney said...

Ruskin is Ronnie Cummins' hatchet man.

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. Folta,

You have my undying admiration and support for the battle you are about to undertake. I know it will blow up in their faces. Science will thank you for it.


Anonymous said...

I have worked in Extension and been the target of delusional "concerned" citizens' endless Freedom of Information Requests/Sunshine Law demands. Litterally requesting almost every email, handwritten notes, and meeting minutes I was ever associated with. In a small county this was a significant $ burden and creates a negatively charged atmosphere.

I no longer work in Extension because of the endless bureaucracy and having each day's priorities set by a few "effective" paranoids.

I chose to leave because there comes a point where you ask yourself can I achieve my professional goals in the face of such endless stupidity and paranoia. It is just astounding how unfounded conspiracies (where even if true were of no significance) can shut down staff productivity via endless bureaucratic process.

I hope the university admin machine takes on the brunt of the tedium for you and your families mental health. With all those overhead charges they should have plenty of lawyers and risk managers on staff.

Good luck.

TheOldTechnician said...

Do they have automatic screening programs that can run first pass as to block out sensitive info? Google already had to do this for their street views and search engines.

Joe S said...

Kevin -
I'm a journalist who has done a few FOIA requests, so I know that public entities are entitled to request reimbursement for copies made and time spent gathering this information. This helps prevent unreasonable requests that are made to harass those working for the public and to reduce any burden on the public entity. Please tell me your university - and those of other scientists and professors involved - is charging them every cent possible.

Anonymous said...

As I remember from my training, Florida's Open Record Laws allow agencies to recover reasonable fees for accessing records and are allowed to charge for the cost of copying. I'm sure that the university lawyers are fully familiar with this.

For big fishing expeditions, this can become rather expensive for those making the request.

Mattris said...

I loved your response, Kevin, and I'm so glad that you're standing up to these bullies.

Technomajestic said...

I think short term they arev going to win, but that will turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. Short term they make you give them data to mine, and may spin attempts to receive reimbursement as attempts to avoid transparency.

Long term, I think it will damage their credibility, and possibly that of all those opposed to biotechnology.

Where I'm concerned is that part of the fallout will be tainting foia requests as the tool of the tinfoil fedora crowd, and thus, the use of it will taint even legitimate investigation with the stench of harassment and paranoia.

How can that be avoided?

Anonymous said...

Hang in there and fight the good fight! I see that US-RTK is simply a PR arm of "Big Organic".

Klaus Ammann said...

Dear Kevin, as always with excellent arguments, and it is necessary to fight against fundamentalist activities, not new to this planet: lots of parallels in the classic of Wilhelm Reich, first published in 1933. Some elements of historic fascism are well alive today, its good to read the old, but clearly prophetic treatment of Reich, although living in another time with other goals to defend.

Reich, W. (1946). The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Translated to English from the German Manuscript by Theodore P. Wolfe (T. P. Wolfe, Trans. Third, revised and enlarged edition, Original: DIE MASSENPSYCHOLOGIE DES FASCHISMUS, First Edition, 1933, Second Edition, 1934 ed.)New York: Orgone Institute Press, U.S.A. AND

Klaus Ammann,

Chris Preston said...


I have been following this in bits and pieces due to being busy with other things. I know I have suggested a couple of times that I think some of your attempts to reason with activists are a little naive. For too many of the anti-GM activists I have had the misfortune to encounter, the ends are all that matters. This time I get the feeling you will be on the right side of the propaganda war. Any twisting done by US-RTK will now simply look embarrassing.

I do hope that complying with this request will not waste too much of your time, given the colossal waste of time and money responding to this request will be.

Loren Eaton said...

Perhaps these clowns should expand into other industries:
From Clemson University in 2003,
"Clemson University, BMW Manufacturing Corporation, and the Governor's Office announced a partnership to build an automotive engineering graduate education center in Upstate South Carolina in order to meet the academic and research needs of BMW, its suppliers and the state's growing automotive industry." A GERMAN company, no less! Shocked, I tell you!

David in Cal said...

Dr. Fulta makes a good point, but I disagree with his discussion of Climategate. The e-mails showed climate scientists intentionally conspiring to avoid sharing their data. In fact, a British review committee said there had been a criminal violation of Britain's Freedom of Information act. The e-mails showed that there was a joint effort to prevent the publication of certain scientific journal articles -- not based on the quality of the research, but based on the articles' conclusions. As to Prof. Michael Mann's reputation, the e-mails pretty much showed that he misleadingly merged two different data sources in a single graph, so as to hide the fact that his tree model wasn't reproducing actual temperatures in recent years. Although Mann is strongly defended in some circles, he's a laughingstock in others. E.g., see

Mary M said...

I just realized the other way this will backfire on them. If they don't want academics doing outreach with other groups, that means all of their pals will have to curtail that activity too. Michael Pollan, Chengshen Lu, the woman who is on the board of this outfit--Juliet Schor.


TheOldTechnician said...

That's a real eye opener! It's good that they'll have to incur the frictional coats they generate with these harassment requests.

Anonymous said...

An update would be nice. Things like:

Number of documents sent

Total word count sent to US-RTK

Man hours spent on task

Estimated $$ spent/wasted

How much $$ Monstanto gave Folta

Number of lives saved by US-RTK

Number of communist sympathizers identified­čśť

Anonymous said...

It is an advantage when a scientist and educator is backed up by the university administration.

Romeo Sid Vicious said...

IIRC, from other discussions, Dr. Folta didn't have to respond, the university had to respond. So Dr. Folta didn't have to waste his time with the actual request, just the aftermath of the witch hunt.

Christopher Timm said...

Personally, I think it would be much better for everyone if there was a discussion on the subject that could be posted as a transcript or something like that online for the public to disseminate and come to their own conclusions. While I completely understand and am sympathetic to what Prof. Folta is saying, there is a legitimate debate about GMO agriculture that needs to be had so that the public has the right information. Most of us don't know the inner workings of things like this and funding from companies like Monsanto for scientific research into the very work that they do can be seen by some as unethical. That doesn't mean the body of research is biased, but you must understand the optics of it can make some people suspicious.