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.

Conclusion


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 Experiment.com 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 Experiment.com, 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. 

Crickets. 

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 Experiment.com, "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. 





Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Biofortified: Write First, Ask Questions Later

This blog post is a revision of a yesterday's that you can read here. 

At the time I was amazingly disappointed, betrayed and angry.  It provoked an overly emotional response that I don't like in retrospect.  I leave it here in the interest of transparency. 

Today's article on Biofortified makes a number of false claims, and they have made a tremendous mistake. 

They made a very public admonishment of me and alleged conflicts of interest that they construe as  ethical misconduct.  However, a simple analysis of the facts provides a very different view. 

Sadly, we live in an age where the first response is to erect a punishing website, rather than reach out and have a discussion about the situation.  Karl Haro von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar really missed an opportunity to raise a higher discussion about the fine line between commitment to transparency and the commitment to confidentiality. 

Here are the facts:

1.  In May of 2017 a law firm contacted me and asked about my willingness to analyze some data as a "Subject Matter Expert". It fit perfectly into my area of expertise, but was not work consistent with my appointment at the University of Florida, and I would be compensated for my time.

2.  Because it was not university work, I filled out the forms for outside work.  There was no check box for the nature of the work I was planning to do (as a subject matter expert),  so I checked "consultant". It was not professional witness work as it was not for a trial.  In an attached letter I would clarify the nature of the work with my university administrators in a letter (that Biofortified also has) that says explicitly that the work was not consulting.

I explain it this way:  The ballistics expert that matches the bullet to the crime scene and presents his data in court is not a consultant for Smith and Wesson. 







While Karl and Anastasia had clarifying documents, they decided not to show them.  They also never reached out in a meaningful way to have a reasonable discusison. 


3.  Under my retention agreement with the law firm, the work was to remain confidential.  I could not discuss the nature of the work, the parties involved, or the type of analysis.  I was a subject matter expert, providing analysis toward an outcome.  This was analysis of public university data within my expertise. A dozen experts or so were sorting out a private matter. 

4.  I inquired with my Associate Dean that handles outside work.  She was glad to provide some guidance and how to be in compliance.  I followed her direction.  Thes fact that I was working as a paid expert for a law firm was clearly presented on my website.    

5.  About two months ago Karl started asking me questions about consulting for Bayer.  This was shortly after the article emerged on GM Watch, where my private information was either hacked or stolen and distributed to anti-GMO websites, possibly by Biofortified or their associates.  I told him that I was not consulting, and not consulting for Bayer.  Because I never was. 




The work I did was bound by confidentiality.  I will not breach that agreement. 


6.  Karl and/or Anastasia obtained university documents (ANONYMOUSLY) from the University of Florida via a Public Records Request that we happily filled.  

7.  Instead of picking up a phone and asking questions, they interpreted the situation based literally off of the documents-- which were drawn up before I even understood the nature of the work.  This is a dangerous space for misinterpretation.

8. They have posted internal documents between me and my superiors that describe what I think the work will be.  Unfortunately I didn't always know ahead of time what I'd be doing, and just provided the best guess information.  My superiors need to know what kind of work I am doing generally to grant my request for outside work.  

9.  The Biofortified website says this:



No information was provided because I had a contract that said the nature of the work, the parties involved and the outcomes would remain confidential.  This was a private matter, not in courts, not in the public. 

10.  There are only a handful of people that know what I interpreted from the data and if they favored one party or another. It does not matter.  I just objectively analyzed the data and gave my report. 


Why is Biofortified Hostile? 

Beats me.  My guess is that this is a tie-in with MAMyths and their buddy Kavin Senapathy, who was quick to jump in on this story.  She's been especially hostile toward me lately in social media, and the folks at Biofortified are probably happy to throw me under the bus and get credit for the next big reveal in Folta's lack of transparency.  That's my best guess. 

It is especially surprising because I always have promoted Karl and Anastasia.  I'd offer them opportunities when I was too busy,  I'd write letters of recommendation, and help promote their careers. I appreciated Biofortified, and actually liked it more before I had anything to do with it.

We have had collegial yet pointy exchanges about the fate of the doomed GMO Corn Experiment and the lack of progress.  I find this unacceptable, as we took money form a crowd sourced effort and owe something.  It should have been done two years ago.  Maybe this sparked their retaliation. 

Conclusion-- 


  • I was compensated for my time as a subject matter expert in a private legal matter. 

  • I consulted with university officials to ensure proper compliance and documentation.  I did this on several occasions to ensure that the details were correct. 

  • I analyzed some university data for a law firm.  The data were derived from experiments that I am extremely familiar with and I was the perfect person to interpret them.

  • I did not "consult" for Bayer or any of the companies mentioned.

  • I was bound to confidentiality about the details of the work.  It was fully disclosed that I analyzed data for a law firm, which is what I did, and what I could disclose while maintaining confidentiality.

  • Karl and Anastasia should be ashamed.   





And then they celebrate.








Friday, August 24, 2018

Anonymous Public Records Requests for Harassment

I've written a lot about public records requests, which ultimately are a good thing and ensure transparency in public servants.  However, I do believe that the current rules far overstep their original spirit, and the process is massively abused at massive taxpayer expense-- with the intention of harassing and harming public employees.  

When you have access to all of someone's email, you can cherry pick the message you'd like to tell.  The internet loves sensationalism and scandal, and is not so excited about the boring realities. 

The Latest Batches

Over the last month my institution has produced about 50 MB of my email and other docs as PDFs.  It is a substantial number of pages, most of it going to author and documentarian Jeffrey Smith.

But there have been anonymous requests as well.  Yes, you do not even need to say who you are or what you seek to peek voyeuristically into the private conversations of academic professors that just want teach and do research.  Transparency is a one-way street. 

This week some docs went out to someone "seeking any documents related to any harassment cases involving Dr. Kevin Folta at the University of Florida, including complaints and investigative materials." 




More requests for public records. The latest come from anonymous inquiries, which I have a hunch are folks in the SciComm community.

They'll get two documents about harassment. However, I was the one being harassed, in one case by someone that stated "that he wanted to kill Kevin Folta."  This ended up as a police report by the university that I didn't even see until yesterday. 

Who is the Anonymous Requester?

It is no secret that some in the science communication community have been quick to side with and propagate false information and allegations from folks like GM Watch.  They've distributed materials in the interest of harming me personally and professionally. 

But these same folks never ask me for thoughts or clarifications.  They have their story and stick to it.  

It is very disappointing.  They don't talk to me, they just distribute negative information from activist websites, turn me in at conferences for violating the Code of Conduct (which the conference found baseless), and now make anonymous requests because they are afraid to be exposed as the gutless backstabbers they truly are. 

The Big Irony

The good news is that it is easy to figure out who they are, and chances are they reveal themselves very soon in their scathing misinterpretation of materials gathered.  I welcome that. 

It is amazing that in the process of transparency these folks wish to remain hidden.  It says a lot about their motivations and character, as they take on the same damaging tactics as the most deplorable activist groups. 

My recommendation is that they carefully fact check before misinterpreting emails and cryptic internal documents.  It will be career suicide if they don't.  This will be interesting to watch. 





Friday, August 17, 2018

Environmental Working Group -- Cereal Killers or Food Terrorists

Just because an organization creates a report does not mean the report should be considered seriously.  In fact, it should be reviewed with a keen eye and great skepticism.

This is not a blog about glyphosate, the active ingredient in herbicides (including "Roundup" for example).   It is a blog about how fear mongers work, and strive to harm trust in perfectly good food. It is about Food Terrorism. 

Food Terrorism

I wrote about this in my Foreword to the book The Fear Babe. While many object to the use of the word terrorism, it is a perfect moniker for what is happening around us.   Terrorism is defined as coercion or intimidation to achieve political or ideological gains. 

This is exactly what the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is doing.  Again.  Deliberately deceiving the public to advance their agenda. 

The timing was perfectly coordinated to fit with the widely-publicized jury verdict in California. 

Bogus Standards

The EWG claims to have found the herbicide glyphosate in commercial oatmeal brands, including organic ones. But here’s the problem. It is very easy to detect extremely small and insignificant levels of chemistry. That’s exactly what they found.

EWG makes up its own standards, which are 14,000 times lower than the EPA's and extremely lower than any other regulatory body.   The levels detected were not high — they actually were well within safety limits. You’d have to eat 30-some bowls of oatmeal a day, every day, in order to achieve some level of realistic risk. 

And the media fell for it. 




News sources reiterate activist words-- "unsafe", "cause cancer", "three times the amount.. that's safe".   They ignore neutral scientists and listen to those driven by agenda. 


Correct Interpretations Come Late

The good news is that within a day dozens of critical analyses were published that detailed the EWG's motivated distortion.  Really nice pieces detail what the numbers really mean and how they truly relate to risk.  Here are some good examples:  1 2 3    

But the damage has been done.  Moms everywhere are dumping oatmeal down the garbage disposal and shaking a fist at farmers everywhere. Those greedy bastards just take tremendous personal financial risk to safely feed the rest of us.  The nerve.  

The poor Quaker Oats dude will likely make quite a showing on garbage day, and oatmeal, a safe food with some potential collateral health benefits, is now off the shopping list. 

Why Trust the Environmental Working Group? 

This is the real question.  Why do news outlets, consumers and Whole Foods shoppers hang on their words?  Greenwashing.  EWG has "environmental" right in the name. How bad can they be? 

While sounding like a benevolent organization out to protect the environment, they actually spend a lot of time fighting against farming, particularly with respect to chemistries that are used to safely protect crops.  Yes, these are the Dirty Dozen folks, the people that scare families away from fresh fruits and veggies. 

Plus, it is not a published report!  EWG does not publish its work in peer-reviewed journals.  Because they can't.  Wild extrapolations, tortured math, lousy statistics and deliberate misinterpretation are their currency and would never survive critical evaluation at a reputable journal. 

A gloomy title, poisoned kids, and evil farmers-- that's a formula for media attention!

Conclusion

I'm perplexed.  When independent scientists or journalists step into a public discussion and cover science honestly they are accused of being agents of corporate conspiracy.  When NGOs tap corporate coffers to deceive the public about food and farming, they are considered heroes. 

And they are very happy to scare the public to death to achieve their agenda. 





Monday, August 6, 2018

When Robots Attack, You've Lost the Debate

I enjoy a spirited discussion.  But how do you do that with a robot?

What if the robot is doing the dirty work of a corrupt activist organization and you are the topic du jour


As a 30-year public scientist I’ve enjoyed educating the public on the science of genetic engineering. That raises the ire of those sworn against the technology. As their arguments continue to crumble and time shows that they have been deceiving the public for decades, their numbers thin. So now they have employed robots for scientific slander. 

 Such is the case over on Twitter, where an account named @NoGMOVerified spews vitriol, seemingly pulling stories from a substantial archive and pumping them into tweet space. The majority of their messages are just the usual drivel, but it gets personal. 


This account exists solely to spread false information, including a daily dose of smear about Yours Truly.

Is it ethical for Twitter to allow continued, targeted harassment?   I've reported the "user" bot and no response. 

This is what the corrupt anti-GMO movement has become. When you can't discuss issues attack the person.  When you realize your personal ship is sinking because of attacks against people, send a slanderous algorithm to do the dirty work. 

The bigger question is, if you consider yourself part of the anti-GMO movement, is this something you endorse?  Are you proud of the people (and robots) that represent you in this asymmetrical dialog? 

Is sending a libel-bot into a scholarly discourse simply waving a white flag? 

A Response to Carey Gillam