Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Dances with Trolls

Social media can be quite a pox, but for the most part it is a great way to share good information, have a laugh, or connect with others.  The problem is that it also can be used by folks with unsavory interests as a tool for personal tear down. 

The unfortunately hostile nature of social media is what turns many away from participation in important conversations. This is especially true about conversations about vaccines, climate or genetic engineering. 

So how to fight back? 

I used to ignore, block or delete hostile trolls.  About two years ago I realized that I could take screenshots of their hate and actually use it to curry favor with those I sought to influence. In other words, by exposing their filth, I earned trust. 

It comes from a position of power. It shows that you are not going to succumb to being a victim, especially from anonymous troublemakers and slander bots.  It also suggests that the reason you are targeted is because you have something important to communicate. 


Yesterday posts started showing up on Twitter.  I wrote a note to CNN and the anchor Ana Cabrerra. The featured The Food Babe Vani Hari as an expert in food safety, when she is untrained in the discipline and has a self-serving non-scientific agenda. 

The tweets specifically cited the highly-visible articles from Brooke Borel (Buzzfeed) and Eric Lipton (New York Times).  Both of these were articles written specifically to target me, harm my reputation, and potentially stir physical harm by igniting the anti-science zealots that swarm to a journalistic road kill. 

Citing articles that purposely targeted me in an effort to erode the trust I garner as an independent, academic public scientist.  These folks want me out of research, out of the classroom and out of your kids' schools. That's the price of being an agent of change.

No Block/Ignore-- Retweet! 

While the convention is to block or ignore, the power move is retweet, along with a positive message. 

Beat trolls with their own words. Retweet hateful messages with positive messaging.  Show who they are. It worked. They deleted their tweet (or blocked me from seeing it) right after I shared it.

This is why you need to save images of all hostile social media interactions.  Because @KarmaSJustice didn't want to stand by his/her words, I took the liberty of re-posting them. 

And of course, tag them in the response!

This is the contemporary method of how you deal with trolls.  Expose who they are. Use their words. Show their hate.  

Most of all, show that their hate does not hurt your interest in teaching and communicating science. 

Remember, most people are unsure of who to trust.  Keep a high road and point out the low road. This is how you gain influence and build more trust with those that need to hear a scientific message. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Another Dose of Chemophobia -- This Time Orange Juice!

Is your orange juice full of weed killer? No. Who is making that claim, and should you be concerned?
Five years ago we all were treated to data claiming that corn was not corn. More precisely, genetically engineered corn was actually a concoction of chemistry that it could not be remotely biological. According to the source, it was lacking carbon, but was packed full of glyphosate and formaldehyde (which are carbon based). It also had a substantially lower “cation exchange capacity” than its non-GMO equivalent, which is odd, because that’s a soil test, and not one done on corn. But it sure had it. Whatever it was.
The data seemed weird because they were. They were fake. Manufactured. Pure bullshit.

From the people that make up data or don’t publish in real journals, more chemophobia.

The table was a soil test template festooned with made-up values by Moms Across America, a twisted group of food fearmongers that used the falsified data to stoke alarm among consumers. I debunked it here.
The bogus data come from the quaint era of manufactured fear when formaldehyde was the key chemical culprit, and about two years before glyphosate would hang as food activists’ favorite pinata.
Glyphosate “Detected” in Everything
Since 2013 the science communication community and wacky food activists learned something important — you can fill a table with creepy numbers, ignite a great media scare, and the facts simply don’t matter.
Over the next few years we’d be treated to reports of glyphosate showing up everywhere from beer, to pretzels to organic wine, to breakfast cereal. According to these results, the stuff is everywhere, including in places it could not possibly be. The reports receive wide media visibility, tainting public perception and convincing the average consumer that their food is killing them.
It is brilliantly devious. Most of these claims have been made by Moms Across America, an organization that knows that people will pay attention to numbers in a chart, and don’t really care where they came from. Charts look quite official and sciencey.
Orange Juice?
Now the Moms Across America claims that orange juice is full of high levels of glyphosate, which is odd, because oranges are not genetically engineered to withstand it. Glyphosate is used in some citrus operations to control weeds, but it is not applied to trees. If it was, it would kill them. The glyphosate applied to row middles degrades in the soil and is not taken up well by roots.
So where did the probably not a probable carcinogen come from?
The lab that did the detection is not an independent operation. It is run by John Fagan, a guy connected with the Maharishi cult and a staunch opponent of biotechnology. He apparently runs a lab in Fairfield, IA, the buckle in the corn belt, surrounded by fields sprayed with glyphosate. If there’s a guy that would want to find it, it would be Fagan. And guess what? He reports to find it.
Shortcomings in Analysis
First, let’s start with the positives. The measurement was performed using LC-MS/MS, a technique that very well could detect glyposate and accurately quantify it. The tested for glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA .
What’s not to like?
No negative control. The compound is detected in everything, so there’s no way to discriminate between a signal caused from glyphosate and a signal caused by some other compound that behaves in the same way during the chemical separation.
No specific extraction method for orange juiceDetecting these compounds using these techniques first means developing a “method” to extract the compound. Every starting material behaves differently and chemistries break down depending on the solvents used and timing. The data provided were obtained from treating orange juice with a protocol developed for breast milk (where legitimate expert scientists failed to detect the compound when Moms Across America claimed to find it). This is important because the detection method looks for a signal with certain chemical properties, those of glyphosate. It is possible that orange juice contains something else that could mimic that signal. There is no way to know that without a negative control.
Single replicates. While the numbers are well within the range of quantitation for LC-MS/MS, there is no way to tell if these were double blinded and randomized, or if there were multiple tests for each sample. There’s no way to know what kind of variation there is within the test or between samples.
Work not published. All of these factors explain why the work appeared on a website and not in a peer-reviewed journal. It is not reliable, rigorous work.
Claimed Levels are Low — Really Low! Even if the detection was real, which it likely isn’t, the alleged amounts are remarkably irrelevant to human physiology. The claim is parts per billion. That’s seconds in 32 years. These levels would have zero effect on human physiology.
Enjoy OJ. Orange juice, not the ex-NFL great. The fact that glyphosate is not used on the trees, coupled to no evidence of reliable detection, coupled to the fact that the organization that commissioned it is known for promoting false information, makes this report destined for the dumpster like the rest of them.
It is curious that they did the same report last year at this time. It didn’t get much traction.
But 2018 is a great time to generate chemophobia around glyphosate. You don’t need sound methods, you don’t need good science, you just need a chart from a cronie’s lab that can be pumped through willing media networks.
It all is part of the elaborate plan where ideology trumps science, and a scary chart is more influential than the entire scientific consensus.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Dr. Don Huber - Time to Recant

Huber's Mystery Organism

In January of 2011 Dr. Don M. Huber, formerly of Purdue University, wrote a warning letter to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  He wrote of a dangerous organism, new to science, that had invaded U.S. agriculture.  It destroyed crops, killed livestock, and caused tremendous harm to human health. It was directly linked to genetically engineered crops and the herbicide Roundup.

In November of 2013 I watched him speak to an audience of concerned people that audibly gasped when he showed pictures of the organism's devastating effects. People shook their heads in disgust. 

At the same meeting I offered to sequence the DNA of the new organism he had isolated, only to have him say that it was already being done by collaborators in China and that it would be published shortly.  Then he said that it had no genetic material. 

He was not counting on someone to be in the audience that could call him on his bullshit. 

Almost eight years after his warning letter and claims of a mystery organism with zero evidence, Dr. Huber is still held up as an authority because he has (had) credibility and tells the credulous exactly what they want to hear. Once again, it proves that you can fool some of the people all of the time. 

Eight Years Later

As of today there is no evidence of the mystery organism.  That's because there is no mystery organism.  

Still he is trusted by the anti-biotech movement, and travels the nation giving talks about the dangers of genetically engineered crops and associated products. 

He also wrote a nasty letter, filled with false allegations about me, to my boss. He lied there too, and I proved it with a recording. 

Why does the anti-GMO movement trust someone that lied to them, wrote warning letters to the US Ag Secretary, and never produced any evidence backing his claims?   

The websites still hold tight to Huber's claims.  He's still a darling of a scientifically bankrupt movement because he has credentials says what they want to hear. 

He Can Be a Hero

The sad part of this is that he'll be remembered as a crazy old loon that had a beef with a biotech industry and decided to fabricate a story to torpedo technology.  He was a decorated veteran, a recognized professor, and an expert in his field.  Why he'd trade that for a grudge and some plane tickets to talk to folks hostile to science and farming is beyond me. 

All he needs to do is recant.  He can say he made it all up, he was angry, and now he realizes the damage he's done.  

He'd be a hero again.  We forgive those that realize the errors of their ways. 

I truly hope that Dr. Huber recants his bogus assertions, publicly and loudly.  Even though he wrote a letter to my boss seeking public censure and punishment, I'd be the first to congratulate him. 

It has been five years since I kindly asked to help him and almost eight since he sent the letter to Vilsack.  

It is time to come clean. 


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

3 Must-Do Tips for an Effective Doodle Poll

Misuse of scheduling tools leads to profound inefficiencies
The first time I told a female co-worker that I needed her to respond to my Doodle Poll I was reported for harassment. Time would reveal that this hazardous homophone was simply an attempt at efficient time management.
If I had a dollar for every Doodle Poll that I receive I’d probably get about six bucks a week. The email arrives inquiring about my availability, and then I click the link and hold my breath — will it be an efficient way of synchronizing a group meeting, or will I spend the next 30 minutes gazing at calendars and clicking on boxes?

For those of us that want to do our jobs, meetings can be a chore. Don’t use scheduling tools to make it a chore to schedule a chore.

The following are my tips for constructing an efficient Doodle Poll:
  1. Provide Just a Few Options. It is a nightmare to have to stare at a jillion poll options, scrolling from day to day, cross referencing against my calendar, and clicking the appropriate box. Eventually I just click the ones where others have indicated availability rather than waste my time, which skews results. Don’t list fifty open time slots. Give me five. My formula is five, plus one for every person in the meeting over three, but no more than ten.
  2. Block Realistic Time Slots. Busy people rarely have half a day free. Pick a time that’s realistic and make it happen.
  3. Close the Poll Quickly. Nobody is waiting for your poll to close before other business is scheduled. The information I put into a Doodle Poll is immediately expiring with a half-life of hours. Many times I have scheduled an open time slot only to have it close a few days later, and then a few days later received Doodle Poll notice of the final meeting time for something I could not possibly attend. Don’t publish a poll to populate and then close it two weeks later. Close it in 24 hours, and let participants know about that in the email. Tell them to “DO IT NOW!” Follow up and get it closed fast.
Adherence to these three simple rules makes for efficient scheduling. It shows respect for participants’ time and ensures that the meeting will likely be scheduled without conflicts.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Response from Bertolli

After sending a complaint to Bertolli after putting their Non-GMO Olive Oil (all olive oil is non-GMO) back on the shelf, my friends at Bertolli kindly returned a message. 

It is all a marketing decision.  It is pandering to the lowest common intellectual denominator and driving sales with fear-based advertising.  

I won't be playing along.  Selling out honesty and ethics to take advantage of the chronically misinformed is not something I support, and not a company I will support with my dollars. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Bertolli and the Non-GMO Project

I ran out of olive oil.  I buy the stuff by the gallon usually, but my local grocery store had some 500 ml bottles on sale for $9.89, but buy-one-get-one-free, so 1 liter of olive oil for about ten bucks. Not too bad.

It was Bertolli brand.  I put it in my cart and then I saw it-- the Non-GMO Project label, the label that certified that no GMO olives were used in the preparation of the oil.  They are telling the truth because there are no genetically engineered olives, so all olive oil is "non-GMO"

So I put back the Bertolli product and instead got a liter of Colavita olive oil for about forty cents more. Neither features the butterfly of credulity. 

Instead of a product that sports fear-based marketing to science-hostile interests, I bought a liter of general purpose olive oil for cooking and a liter of a higher quality oil for special applications.

It gets much worse.  The Bertolli website features six products under "olive oils". 

But wait!  Some of these must contain oil from genetically engineered olives.  I never knew such things existed (because they don't) but you can filter products by "Non-GMO" options. 

And how many dropped out of the search?   ZERO!  All olive oil is comes from non-genetically-engineered olives, every last drop.  So the filter removes nothing. 

It is a useless bauble, a deliberate means to misinform the consumer that simply has concerns about their food. Bertolli plays right into the deception of food misinformation. 

Now I can add Bertolli to my list of companies to not support.  I will not let my dollars be used to fund an organization that misinforms the public, fights against farmer choice, and harms technology from reaching those in food insecure regions of the world where it is desperately needed.

Avoid the label.  Don't buy the products.  Remember who exploited fear-based marketing long after this dangerous trend has passed. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

CHEMOPHOBIA FILES: LaCroix Water & Insecticide

In a campaign that The Food Babe would be proud of, a group of attorneys have filed a class action lawsuit against LaCroix.  The claim is that the ingredients are not natural and that they are components of roach killer. 

It is the 2018 equivalent to Vani Hari's misrepresentation that Subway's bread was made up of yoga mat chemicals. Remember that one?  Ah, simpler times. 

The ever-credulous media was quick to amplify the story. 

Without any critical analysis, the internet amplifies the sensational report. 

The attorneys claim that LaCroix contains linalool and limonene, two components of "cockroach insecticide".   It does, and it is. 

But was is linalool?   It sounds like a medical tool on the Three Stooges, but it really is the characteristic flavor of Froot Loops cereal.  It is a naturally-occurring volatile compound in fruits that imparts a fruity, floral note in fruit aroma.  

What is Limonene?   It is abundant in citrus peel and is a component of citrus aroma. 

These two natural compounds found in fruits are used to flavor fruit-flavored beverages.  Stop the freakin' presses. 

As for insecticidal properties?   Certain aromatics are known to be insect repellents.  Others bother birds.  My lab has shown that linalool and other compounds suppress microbial growth. That does not mean that they are dangerous to consume.

But in interest of a splashy headline and a lawsuit, there are those out there that will spin the truth to serve their own ignorance and greed. Linalool and limonene are not a health risk at the levels used, they are consumed when you eat many fruits and vegetables.  It is classic chemophobia, now weaponized to make a buck from a frivolous lawsuit. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

The Mechanism of Thalidomide Action

How thalidomide created birth defects was a 60-year mystery.  Until now. New insight into its use in cancer therapies also. This week's podcast is a great interview with Dr. Kathleen Donovan from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Fence Causes Cancer (only in California)

It is almost October in Florida, which means the brutal summer heat is almost over and we can plant the damn garden. Over my whole life I’ve found great solace in growing my own food, and in North-Central Florida you get two seasons to do it — fall and spring, two seasons separated by a freeze event or two that represents our tiny little microwinter.
This year the garden is expanded to epic proportions and features a lot of climbing vegetables. Others, like tomatoes, grow better if tethered rather than using the flimsy tomato cages home improvement stores.
This year I actually sprung for some new fencing — but the warning tag had me concerned.

I historically have used welded wire fence, the stuff with big 10 cm squares that allow me to reach through to pick fruit.  One year in Chicago I found a roll of road mesh (same concept used in reinforcing concrete) in front of a Mexican bakery.  It was there for a few days and then I brought it home in my 1984 Chevy Caprice decommissioned police car I bought for $500. 

This year I actually bought some new fencing-- but the warning tag had me concerned. 

Thank goodness I'm using it far away from California, this stuff is deadly there! 

What? My fence contains chemicals? Technically metal is a chemical, so they have it right there. The warning must be referring to some component in the alloy that was shown somewhere to affect cells in a dish, or some other circuitous connection to human disease.
I just don’t understand where the risk is. If it is fencing in my home, my veggies or my dog… will I get cancer? Will I develop birth defects a half century after I was born? Will the fence imperil future generations?
When we hear about coffee, pumpkin puree and tiffany lamps causing cancer in California, it frames an important issue. Regulators don’t understand risk or public health.
The consequence? A society of individuals freaked out about their morning Joe, the safe stuff the farmer sprays, or the fence around their house.
And imagine if someone fences their property on the border of California and Nevada. They’d be wise to do their major sitting time on the Nevada side, just be to safe. Over in Cali you’re literally surrounded by a carcinogen.
This silly tale frames a current debate. Why are non-scientists defining risk — especially when they deceive the public by not telling the truth about risk? It is the ultimate cry wolf. When everything is reported to cause health problems it makes us less able to recognize actual threats, which ultimately is a much greater risk to human health.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Banned By Biofortified.

You may be familiar with the issues with Biofortified.  Using anonymous public records requests they obtained internal, outside work documents from the University of Florida.  I was asked to lend my expertise as a subject matter expert (sort of like an Expert Witness, but it was not a trial) in mediating an issue between two organizations. I had to get approval to do this from University Administration, so I filled in the forms with details needed for them to make decisions on legality and appropriateness. 

They approved. I then signed a contract with the law firm representing one organization, stating that I'd keep all information confidential. I posted that I was retained by a law firm as a compensated subject matter expert in a private matter on vacation time, in full compliance with my university's disclosure guidance.

Biofortified obtained my private correspondence, and in a blindsided hit-- made all of the information public, and destroying the confidentiality I was sworn to abide. 

The worst part is, they misinterpreted internal docs that didn't reflect the actual nature of the work.  In the beginning I didn't know exactly what I'd be doing, what you'd call it, or how it should be reflected in documents. 

I felt that their interests in my private, outside of work contributions to a private mediation could have been handled in a much different fashion. 

A spirited discussion took place in the comments section of the story, and I was glad to be able to join in. 

That ended today.  Someone posted a nasty, mean, false statement and I went to correct it-- but found myself banned. 

Banned from commenting in my own defense.  I'll interpret this as Biofortified's surrender flag.   

It says a lot about the integrity of Karl and Anastasia and the ethics of Biofortified.  They can dish it out... you know the rest. This is a topic that needs more conversation, not less, and much more nuanced than blindsiding, errant articles. 

Instead of a public, open discussion Karl takes it private.  This way he can spin it any way he wants without having to be accountable. Ironic that the Transparency Police want conversations hidden and privacy respected. 

The good news is that this needed conversation is happening.  I've had a few doors open because of his instance, and will be writing and speaking at a number of venues on the important balance of transparency and confidentiality. 

And I'm done with Biofortified.  Forward. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

UCSF's War Against Scientists

The University of California at San Francisco is sponsoring, with taxpayer dollars, an assault on taxpayer funded scientists.  Not only have they created slanderous databases, they now are hosting public lectures where industry-sponsored activists are allowed to impeach established evidence and smear the reputations of actual public scientists.

Like me.

US-Right to Know has a clear agenda, and scientists that teach information that is counter to that agenda are systematically dismantled using a series of well-established techniques, which include selective publication and interpretation of public records requests, defamatory websites, and manipulation of journalists to tell their crooked story. 

Now they have a patsy on the inside of UCSF, someone that is complicit in furthering their smear campaign.  I've already written about the Chemical Industry Documents library, where my conversations with other academics about lavaliere microphones and  private conversations with newly arrived lab staff. 

 Here's one from the "Chemical Industry Documents" section of the UCSF website.  It was my new postdoc landing in Gainesville and seeking to arrange a meeting. This is what they call the illicit interworkings of the Chemical industry. 

The goal is to use the gravitas of a legitimate university to discredit, as much as possible, other academics.  They can report that I have thousands of pages of "chemical industry correspondence"-- when these are just day-to-day discussions and me doing my job. 

On September 13 UCSF sponsored a group of speakers called, Unsealing the Science:  What the Public Can Learn from Chemical Industry Documents

Wow.  My personal correspondences with the lab and the GMO Answers website are chemical industry documents that put Gary Ruskin in "peril" by exposing them?  

Breaks my heart.  A lecture hall of students gets to hear two non-scientists present their industry-paid opinions on why actual scientists are all chemical-industry crooks that want to poison them. 

The session features two people that have personally targeted me, Gary Ruskin and Jonathan Latham.  Latham is the stooge that runs Independent Science News.  He's a relatively benign former scientist that publishes patently false information and calls it news.  He's not stupid, so he's deliberately deceptive. Gary is Gary, paid by an industry to assault the careers of scientists paid by the taxpayer. 

These people are motivated activists, not academics. They are held to no standard, no rigor.  And these were the people presenting that lecture to a room of students. 

This is not even "teaching the controversy".   It is an asymmetrical vomiting of bogus information from known anti-science entities.

Gary Ruskin presents my article on Genetic Literacy Project as an attempt to mislead the public about glyphosate. 

Why is UCSF providing a forum for merchants of doubt to create fear, uncertainty and doubt, and besmirch the reputations of actual public scientists?  I've complained, and they don't care. 

Oh, and UC-Berkeley brought a busload of journalism students down to this event too. 

Journalism students were treated to literal fake news, presented by industry-funded activists that seek to stop science education. 

If UCSF brought in Holocaust deniers to provide a lecture on how they were silenced and how their opinions are more important than the evidence, people would be rightfully outraged.  Same if UCSF brought in speakers denouncing climate change, suggesting vaccines cause autism, or claim HIV is not a cause of AIDS. 

Then why does UCSF use public resources to sponsor known science-hostile activists to tarnish the minds of students in attendance?  

This is a very serious problem. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Three Years after The Food Babe's Request for My Personal Emails...


Three years ago the Food Babe, Vani Hari, submitted a public records request to my university.  I have always been a vocal about Hari, both in her egregious errors as well as her talents as a motivational pre-Goop peddler of generally poor advice. Of course, a blind squirrel does find a nut here and there, so I agree with her on some facets about food and farming. 

But Hari was convinced that my criticisms were being dictated by the Biotech Industry Mothership, and that an independent scientist could not possibly find flaw with her analyses and recommendations. 

This is the text from her blog about the need to file the request. She wanted to unveil how the "food industry" used me to "control science and deliver their PR and lobbying messaging." She got a big fat goose egg.

She exploited transparency laws and requested tens of thousands of pages of my personal emails.  They were delivered to her promptly and at great taxpayer expense.  

And three years later that incredible stack of documents has yielded zero outcomes that support her allegations. 

I bring this up over 1000 days later for a couple of reasons.  First, taxpayers are paying a fortune to comply with transparency laws.  These are important rules that were put in place so that media could quickly have access to records of government officials, keeping them honest. 

But somewhere along the line this all was extended to cover the private correspondences and paperwork of university professors.  I'm always glad to comply, but it takes huge amounts of work time that I'd rather spend with students and research. It also is exceedingly expensive, as an attorney must go through each document and redact student, health and proprietary information. 

It also confirms my original hunch about these witch hunts.  People like Hari don't reach out and ask questions or pick up a phone-- they grab your private correspondence and then tell the story they want to tell from it.  

But high marks to Vani for not making something out of nothing like others have done. She refrained from endless innuendo and taking lines out of context to build support for her (failed) hypothesis.

Back in September of 2015 when I was literally dying from anxiety and depression and contemplating quitting science, this blog post and the doxing that occurred in the comments section was devastating.

But three years later the truth clearly won.  There was nothing there.  

No secret collusion.

No corporate PR messaging.

No conspiracy.

Just thousands of pages of email from a simple guy that does his job and corrects those that deceive the public for personal gain. 

Back in 2015 therapists told me that time would be kind.  At least with The Food Babe's allegations, they were correct.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

More Bullying Scientists

Cameron English just published an outstanding article over on Genetic Literacy Project.  If there's one thing you read today, please make sure this is it.  The story is about lactation specialist Dr. Shelley McGuire.  She tested for glyphosate in breast milk and didn't find it. What happened next is about intimidation, hacking, and abuse by a corrupt movement. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Balancing Transparency and Confidentiality, Again

Today I found another sterling example of how academic researchers find a challenging predicament when honoring both transparency and confidentiality at the same time.

I recently reviewed a grant proposal for the USDA.  We agree to keep this information confidential, yet the proposals and our review travel by university email.  It would be easy to harvest the proposal and my evaluation using FOIA. 

But the USDA makes me sign an agreement that I will keep the information confidential and cannot provide the information via FOIA.  My institution didn't sign off on this, just me.  Would the USDA, the researchers, and my private correspondence be protected?  Probably not. 

The USDA says that it is their job to determine if the materials are to be distributed.  If the university receives a request, they don't reach out to those involved and ask for permission. They fill the request.

So if Karl Haro von Mogel asks me questions about the review, who's lab it was or what the project was about, I would have to decline providing any details. 

But if he wants to see this confidential review, he can do the anonymous FOIA request to the university and get it. 

Then he can admonish me publicly for not being transparent and then publish the content of a private document on the web. 

There are times when academic researchers, striving for transparency, must heed confidentiality agreements in order for the process to work properly.  Unfortunately (or fortunately if you like seeing private documents) the laws that ensure transparency are not compatible with the need to occasionally maintain confidentiality. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Peril of Non-Disclosable Details in COI's

The last part of my discussion in Conflicts of Interest (COI) and balancing transparency versus confidentiality.  

The conversation started when I had outside work, meaning nothing to do with my university appointment. I was asked to review data for a law firm as a subject matter expert.  It was not a trial, but a private mediation between parties. It was agreed that all information, including the players involved, would be kept confidential.  I agreed with that.

Vague (and approved) verbiage was provided on my website that I was working as an expert for a law firm outside of my job and I was compensated for it. 

What I didn't realize at the time was how this kind of non-disclosable COI is perceived.  To most of us that have such arrangements with companies that fund a trial, share a collaboration, and wish their association to remain confidential, it poses a tremendously dangerous place for loss of public trust. 

What can he possibly be hiding? 

Again, this never crossed my mind because my non-disclosure agreements have been with little ma & pa companies that wish to work in an arena dominated by big names.  It is not biotechnology, for what its worth.  Nobody is claiming that they can't believe my pigment data in sprouts because I'm "shilling for big microgreen."

We all have COIs, and many have non-disclosure agreements.  The problem is that when we honor confidentiality it disturbs public trust.

This will continue to be a challenge for those of us that wish to continue research under NDAs.  We probably are best suited to step out of science communication.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Transparency's Edge

I'm thinking about next Monday.  Labor Day.  While it is a holiday for most, I'll be on a conference call at 7 AM-- one steeped in mystery. 

While transparency is critical to trust in public science, are there times when it is not warranted?  I never even thought about this until today after going under the bus by the folks at Biofortified for taking on a confidential,vacation-time paid assignment with a law firm. They felt that they should know everything I do on my off time in a private arbitration. 

We (scientists and companies) sometimes work under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). Me, not so much. But this is very common in all research institutions. 

My lab has expertise in narrow-bandwidth lighting solutions for plant growth environments. Should have to disclose all of our findings in development in the name of transparency?  

When a company wants to discuss research or potential funding, it is customary for both parties to sign an NDA.  It means that nothing that is discussed in that meeting can be discussed outside of that meeting.  It allows assurances for free flow of ideas and honest discussion of research avenues. 

This Labor Day morning I have a phone conversation with a company that works in LED lighting for greenhouses and controlled environments.  It is a highly competitive space with big profits riding on new ideas and discoveries that are few and far between. 

They'd like me to keep their interests confidential. 

My lab has a lot of edgy ideas.  While I want to find someone to invest in further research, I don't want them to steal my ideas and them on their own, or partner with institutions that have better facilities.  

I'd like them to keep my interests confidential. 

So we establish an NDA. 

But is this Transparency?

The recent actions by Karl Haro Von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar claim that nothing can be secret, that academic scientists must divulge all information about their work and who they are working with. 

Unfortunately, many companies in this competitive space do not want to share their research affiliations and want to keep the nature of the work they are doing private. 

We still can publish the work and acknowledge them after the fact.  But in establishing the relationship the NDA is an important tool.  But does that fly in the face of transparency? 

Trade Secrets

Sometimes we have to enter into contacts that indicate that we'll keep information confidential.  It is to protect the interests of all parties involved.  The docs can be obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests and will show the names of the parties, but not the content of proposals and other proprietary details (they'll be redacted).  

Can you imagine how the folks at Biofortified will run that up the transparency flagpole as a major breach of ethics, and undisclosed associations? 

This Hurts Everyone

The demands of transparency hawks will only destroy university scientists' ability to explore collaborative agreements and research relationships. Small companies especially are fighting for a small piece of the market, and turning over their secrets because a couple of internet sleuths want to know everything Folta does and who he associates with, means nobody will work with me, no matter how innovative we are.  When Karl and Anastasia are going to hunt down and spread confidential documents on the internet, what company would work with us?  They won't work with us unless we can start off with an agreement for confidentiality.


Transparency is important, but there are instances when information must be withheld from public scrutiny, and protected by NDA.  However, this need then provides a fertile ground for critics to levy the complaint that a researcher has 'secret ties' and 'undisclosed relationships'.  

Can we be transparent and still respect confidentiality?  Not in the eyes of the transparency warriors. 

It is time for critics to analyze our work and actions, and stop niggling in our thin bits of confidential business.  We just want to do research.  Especially those of you that don't have labs, have payrolls, and don't write grants-- please let us do our work. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Revising History: Removed from the GMO Corn Experiment

Revision of history is a dangerous game, especially when you denounce the intellectual and material contributions of others-- like they never even happened. 

I have been advised that I no longer am involved in a project associated with Biofortified (Biology Fortified Inc.)-- the now mummified GMO Corn Project.  Karl Haro von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar's unilateral action is not only disappointing, it calls into question their ethics and trustworthiness, as it was their glacial pace that has dragged this simple project out for almost three years.  

Yesterday they outed my confidential, non-work participation as a subject matter expert in a private arbitration. I was retained by a law firm to provide my insights and analyze some old data in an ancient matter.  My participation as a compensated expert in outside work with a law firm is clearly delineated on my website, to the extent that I can provide details under my confidentiality agreement.

Karl and Anastasia decided it was their job to blow my confidentiality using public records law and then call my commitment to the confidential nature of a private matter "non-transparency".  Shame. 

I was also expunged from an project yesterday.  Here's the story: 

In the Summer of 2015, yes almost three years ago, Karl Haro Von Mogel and I developed a concept for, a chance to formally test the frequent and tired claim that squirrels, rats, and other varmints would not eat GE corn.  We'd do it as a fun Citizen Science experiment.

We exchanged dozens of emails and sat through meetings, talked about Materials Transfer Agreements and what the right experimental design might be.  We spent a lot of time in conception and roll out. 

The experiment went live in November of 2015.  I promoted the work, sought donation, and we were surprised to see the project fully funded in fewer than 24 hours.

Then and now.  Overnight my contributions to a project vanish. This is a serious ethical breach.  

Over the next weeks Karl worked extremely hard to manage the kits, mail them, etc.  By far he did a the most work on the project, as prepping hundreds of kits, coding the corn cobs, etc is not trivial work. 

That is where the energy died. 

In the following weeks I recommended gathering the data, analyzing it and publishing. 


Karl insisted that we'd complete the work, and that he had a few more kits to send out and we were waiting on data from a few more people. 

One year goes by.  He finally closes the two-week experiment. 

After that it was like watching grass grow-- if you sprayed it with Roundup.  

And I'm not saying that I was especially helpful in forcing it forward. Outside of occasional prodding, I also sat on data once or twice and didn't have time to commit 4-6 hours to certain measurements.  But there was no sense of urgency in the project and I can think of two times where something that could have taken a day took a week or two (maybe three or four). 

This should have all been complete early in 2016.  I spent a substantial amount of time framing the paper and writing up the rationale, and leaving holes for the finalized results.   That died on a Google Drive.

The messages kept coming in on, "When are you guys going to publish this?"  

I answered them, but mostly referred them to Karl. 

To me this was the biggest problem.  We accepted funds to do the work and failed to deliver.  People were sending me angry emails.  This was ugly. 

Over the last year I regularly prodded Karl-- can we please finish the project? 

It still was not complete, three full years after its conception and almost three years since it should have been done. 

Removed from the Project

Yesterday I received an email explaining that I was removed from the project from Karl and Anastasia.  They made sure it went to my Dean and Department Chair too. 

Gone are the days of civil conversations between adults. Someone has to tell on Folta, so weave in his Dean and Department Chair into a personal matter. Well done. 

They basically told me to delete everything, that I'm off the project, and have nothing to do with it. 

Can we Re-Write History?

This is the serious ethical question here.  We agreed to do this together three years ago.  If Karl and Anastasia would have invested minimal time in this work it would have been done long before any allegation of a conflict of interest (when my activities were fully disclosed to the extent I could discuss them). 

Publication Ethics

Authorship and appropriate credit for work performed is critical in scientific publication.  You can't just remove someone and pretend they never contributed in a meaningful way. 

Karl and Anastasia kind of get a pass on this because they don't publish their work and have slim exposure to the process.

I wrote wrote back and advised them:

Now we wait. 

Will Karl and Anastasia cross an ethical line here?  My guess is yes because their compass seems to be a little rusty. Not only did they publicly violate the confidential agreement of someone else, they also removed them from a project that needed to be completed ages ago.  

I'm extremely disappointed with them, and if they publish the work and fail to acknowledge me as an author, we will discuss this matter with the journal, seek retraction, and correction.