Monday, August 10, 2015

The Radical Activist Attack on a Teacher

You'd swear by the hate-filled rhetoric that I just threw a pillowcase of kittens and an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker into a wood chipper. 

Why? 

A scientific paper with manipulated data?   No.

A public presentation with information contrary to the scientific literature?  No. 

Statements to the media that are untrue?   No.  

What did I do to earn their ire?  I found some funds to teach science. 

For the last 12 years science communication has run parallel to my research and teaching.  Every year I provide a talk to our grad students about how to not just do science, but then how to share science. 

In 2012 I was traveling to quite a few places and answering lots of questions.  I was turning down lots of gigs because I had no budget to do it.  So when a group would offer an honorarium (big organizations can afford to do), I would not accept it personally.  Instead it would go into an outreach account to pay for future outreach opportunities. 

When asked about my speaker fees I always just say, "Take what you think would be customary and donate it to my outreach program."  We're talking thousands of dollars here. 

In Fall of 2014 the Monsanto company offered support for the program, and I thought that was great.  Love 'em or hate 'em, my workshops were teaching everyone from kids to scientists, so I was glad to welcome their support. 

It never was a secret.  At universities, our records are public, and people know where our funding is from.  You can probably find it online if you look  hard enough, but just ask and I'm glad to tell you about who sponsors my research or who sponsors my outreach. 

Last week the public information voluntarily hit the right activist ear, and they went ballistic. Screams of "Shill!" could be heard everywhere from drum circles to the Whole Foods Gluten Free Bisque Repository. After all, $25K is a lot of money, so to most people this was the smoking gun of high collusion they always suspected.  Heck, anyone that talks about science must be getting paid off. 

But alas that's a relatively small sum in perspective. Sure, I'm grateful for it and we're doing some good things.  This last year I did a few public education workshops for students/postdocs (including Iowa State, NC State, Arizona State, others).  Plus we put on two huge workshops- one at University of Florida (5/11/2015) and one at ASPB's National Conference (7/26/15).  Just to rent the venue at the second one cost $2500.  

Still, there's $16,000 or so left in the account. I'll make the specifics public this week.  You can see the $56 I spent on Jimmy Johns subs at ASU and the doughnuts I bought at Iowa State.  They were delicious.

So how much does Monsanto's contribution (no salary, no dollars to me, just for science communication program costs) matter in the big scope of things? 




This is what they are so upset about?  You mean that line that I had to draw on because it didn't show up on the graph on it's own? 



Various donors from very different industries have recognized the utility of my program in raising the scientific literacy of key groups in our nation. That is precisely why activist groups need it to stop.  

My research program NEVER was funded by Monsanto. Never. Probably never will be.  However, how to activists portray me?  How do they twist reality? 


 And Einstein's quote on the bottom could not be more fitting. 
I have no research money from Monsanto, and never personal compensation for any talks. At least they got that right.




  I'm Monsanto's lil' slave on the plantation. Talk about low class metaphors.   Paid to "promote" GMOs?  You mean, provided funds to pay for costs associated with teaching science? 


On top of all of this I received lots of other hateful messages, and notes from Gmail and Yahoo that my accounts were experiencing suspicious activity at sign in.  Good times.

Please share today's blog far and wide.  It shows what is happening here.  I was teaching science, a company allowed more science to be taught, and activists need that enabled scientist marginalized and reputation destroyed.  This is the length they will go to-- harm a scientist that has won awards for outreach and mentoring, because he dares to teach effective science communication.   

They only survive if science literacy fails. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Silencing Inconvenient Science -- Vavilov


After yesterday's interactions there is no question that the recent events by USRTK and activist groups are simply a drive to fight scientific literacy, and dissuade students and newly minted academics from entering the discussion.  The libel, defamation and reputation harm we endure, along with veiled threats and undue criticism, stand to repel scientists from simply teaching science, and most of all, from participating in a public dialog. 

Facts sometimes can be inconvenient to activist agendas, so they must eliminate or marginalize the teachers.  Here on a sunny Sunday, I present a story you may not know... but it has eerie parallels to today's discussion about the attacks on science and reason. 

Nikolai Vavilov was a brilliant scientist and gifted geneticist, years before genetics was even a discipline.  His tireless collections of plant species, incredible observations and excellent science were decades before his time.  His collections of seeds are among the world’s greatest and his botanical tenets remain underpinnings of modern crop biology.

Nikolai Vavilov, brilliant botanist and plant collector.  He was murdered for his science that was not accepted by those that held "alternative" views in science. 


Here’s the punch line.  Vavilov would be arrested and tried by the Stalin regime for his views on science.  He would die in prison for his science.  He remains to this day a hero among academics in plant breeding, and a martyr of science.

Nikolai Vavilov was born in 1874.  He attended fine academies and quickly found himself among Russian luminaries of science.  In 1917 he became a professor at Saratov University, and quickly gained attention as one of the world’s foremost experts in plant biology. 

He attained this distinction because of his expeditions and collections.  He traveled the globe, identifying new species and trends of diversification within plant populations.  He traveled into uncharted areas of the world to better understand plant biology and plant diversity. During his travels he documented skirmishes with bandits, and bouts with malaria and typhus.  Throughout his career he traveled to 64 countries understanding plants, taking massive collections (160,000 cataloged under his direction), careful documentation and generating huge amounts of data.  He wrote many books and scholarly papers, spoke fifteen languages, and introduced ideas that were revolutionary in a time where the concepts of the gene were just bubbling to the fore. 

He would rise to the position of Deputy Director of the Soviet Bureau of Applied Botany.  At the peak, the institute was home to over 20,000 scientists and 400 research laboratories.  Some concepts, such as the Law of Homologous Series of Variation (1920) are still taught in contemporary breeding and evolution classes, and as far as traits go, typically hold up to modern molecular scrutiny.

Vavilov lived during the transition to Stalinist Russia.  Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin took charge of the country.  With this change came a frank denial of Darwin and his fundamental principles.  Vavilov, being a scientist and witnessing living examples consistent with Darwin’s ideals, held views consistent with the emerging concepts of genetics.

T.D. Lysenko claimed that species changed because the environment "trained" next generations. His data were limited, he was criticized by scientists worldwide, but those in charge in his country accepted and lauded Lysenko and his "science" because it fit communist ideology better than Darwinian ideas. 

Coincident with as Vavilov’s ascendance, a young scientist named T.D. Lysenko began working under his direction.  Lysenko examined vernalization, the process of inducing flowering by subjecting plants to cooler temperatures.  This is an important agricultural trait to understand, as it governs when food will be produced.  Lysenko became a prominent voice in plant science, and was appreciated by the Soviet government because his ideas of Lamarckian evolution fit the government’s preferences over Vavilov’s Darwinian slant.

Lysenko had narrow training and rejected Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution. He was opposed to the use of hybrid maize, a concept that was gaining acceptance at the time.

The contrast was becoming more clear.  Lysenko pushed a concept that conditioned changes could be inherited.  His hypotheses were based on a single plant, and he was seriously criticized by the wider scientific community.   On the other hand, Vavilov adhered to Darwinian concepts, indicating that traits were inherited and predictable in populations.  (Sound familiar in the modern context?)

Meanwhile, Vavilov invited American-resident Russian scientist Georgi Karpechenko to return to his home country.  Karpechenko was well known for his studies of speciation in plants, particularly in examination of polyploids (plants that possess too many sets of chromosomes). In 1940 Karpechenko eventually returned to Russia.  

Science of inheritance and chromosomes discussed by Vavilov and Karpechenko did not resonate well with Stalin-regime leaders. They were described as "Mendelist-Morganist enemies of the people" (Mendel being the monk that made the primary observations of inheritance, Morgan being the scientist that initiated chromosomal theories of inheritance and genetic linkage).  Lysenko’s ideas of nurture being more powerful than nature matched well with the communist doctrine, as they found the idea that change could be installed to be consistent with their philosophy.  Stalin’s government then would dictate the rules of biology, and how they were applied.

During the late 1930's in a roundup USRTK would be proud of, geneticists were arrested and tried.  Many of them were murdered for their acceptance of Darwinian evolution.  

Among them would be Vavilov and Karpechenko.


Vavilov was the director of a prestigious scientific institution, so his arrest would bring great public attention.  He was invited to an excursion in what is today western Ukraine, and in 1940 he was arrested.   The collecting excursion was designed to get him into a place where there would be little news, little controversy when arrested.  Vavilov was returned to Seratov where he was tried and convicted.  He was supposed to have been executed by firing squad, but he was spared to twenty years in prison.

Arguably the greatest scientist of the time and one of the best plant scientists ever was then incarcerated in the Seratov Prison, a hideous gulag where he suffered in horrendous conditions, sustaining himself on moldy flour and cabbage.  

He died 2.5 years later in 1943 of cardiac failure at the age of 55, malnourished and wasting in solitary confinement.

Fellow scientist Kapechenko, along with some of his colleagues, were arrested and executed by firing squad in 1941 for practicing "forbidden sciences of genetics"

*****

During his confinement, Vavilov stood by his science, stood by his understanding,  eventually to his demise. He wrote, with reference to The Inquisition, "We shall go to the pyre, we shall burn; but we shall not retreat for our convictions."

To stand with 40 other scientists that are preparing for a public reputation execution based on contrived narratives hyperbolic claims of corporate collusion, is not to directly compare to Nikolai Vavilov.  He sits aside Borlaug and few others in his scientific stature and in his impacts on modern plant science.  

The point is to compare where ideology violently overrules science.  It is relevant again as we witness a new war of anti-scientific ideas, along with an orchestrated intimidation and harassment of public scientists, and even threats of violence.  The suspicion generated by USRTK  foments anger and hate, as even an innocent outreach program's funds are deemed high collusion by those that need to silence scientists. 

Sometimes it is good to review where denial of science led to tremendous backslides in progress.  It is critical to review the instances in history where ideology made irreversible errors that harmed innocent stewards of science, and without question slowed progress in the future of food. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

A Crisis Building

I just received this from an undergraduate student at University of Arizona.  I redacted the specifics about her research work as an undergrad, but I will add that she's a Hispanic female interested in graduate school in my lab. This is the saddest damn thing I've read in a long time, and a symptom of what comes from Ruskin's digital McCarthyism. 



Dear Dr. Folta, 

I recently saw your AMA on reddit concerning the USRTK group, and how their obtaining of your personal and private communications has begun to influence your life, and the narrative that has been developed by them concerning your work. Being somewhat familiar with your work, it was shocking to hear the lengths that any group would go to in order to give your work a bad name....


this was the part about her research, so I'll omit that for her privacy. 

....Your experiences that you have shared make me worry for the future of this area of science. I think that outreach and public education in scientific topics is extremely important, and the lack of public understanding is really what allows groups like this to be successful. Transparency is also important, but seeing what groups with a malicious intent can do with it is worrisome. Do you see these trends changing at all in the future? Are there any groups doing the opposite of what USRTK is doing, or are any attempts at rebuttals being made? Do you feel that there is a need for rebuttals, or do you believe that your work and your personal life should be allowed to speak for themselves? I was previously considering University of Florida as a possible institution for my graduate studies. Do you see groups like this having an effect even at the graduate student level?


Speechless.

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 http://www.talkingbiotech.com/support/



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 http://www.slideshare.net/kevinfolta/presentations .  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 www.talkingbiotech.com 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. 




Saturday, August 1, 2015

Talking Biotech 011: Good Science Spun Bad; Bad Science Spun Gold

This week’s podcast is an important analysis of two published reports. First, the results from the famous Rothamstead wheat trial show that their transgene does not confer resistance to aphids, inconsistent with their laboratory findings.  While this outcome was considered to be a successful, reliable answer, it was billed as an abject failure on anti-biotech activist websites. Today we revisit the issues of publication and peer-review, and the story of the threats of vandalism against the experiment.  We then will speak with Prof. John Pickett from Rothamstead Research Institute. We’ll discuss the lab work the trials, and future directions.
The second part of the podcast discusses the recent publication from Adyydurai et al that claims transgenic soy produces abnormal amounts of formaldehyde, relative to non-transgenic controls.  The conclusion comes from a computational approach that was never experimentally validated.  Since, I have extended an offer to test their hypothesis, yet they have not accepted the opportunity to examine if their prediction is in fact correct.  Meanwhile, they are using this paper as a warning about transgenic crops.

Monday, July 27, 2015

How Pseudoscience Propagates

The paper published in Agricultural Sciences by Shiva Ayyadurai presents a hypothesis that transgenic soybeans are high in formaldehyde and deficient in glutathione.  The story is covered in the two previous blogs.  I reached out to Dr. Ayyadurai and suggested that he come to Florida, we grind some beans, and actually do the test. 

There has been no response, but he is certainly out playing up his findings as factual confirmation of formaldehyde in soy.  Read the headlines of the websites below:



That is not what the report claims, but it is what the authors want it to claim.  No data were presented on formaldehyde levels.



Again, overstating what the report says.  In both cases they emphasize "peer reviewed", showing the danger of predatory publishing. 


A credulous, scientifically-illiterate activist media basks in the joy of the conclusion-- even though it has no basis in reality.  The intent is to frighten people about good food. 

What does the senior author say?



The demand for immediate testing has been requested, along wtih his kind assistance as a collaborator and co-author.  We are collecting soybeans and corresponding controls to actually do the measurement he should have performed.  


This is absolutely an anti-GMO question. To make a claim that has no basis in empirical science, and fail to test a computational claim, by a guy that is a known anti-GMO activist (along with this anti-GMO activist wife, Fran Drescher), is deplorable. 

It is creating fear about good food, something he has plenty of access to.  It is elitist pandering to a credulous, activist movement that simply wants to create fear, and advance an agenda.

This instance underscores the damage of low-quality research finding ways into low-end journals. They have a patina of legitimacy and easy fool willing readers into overinterpretation.  This is going to only get worse.

For now, the offer to demonstrate the presence of his predicted formaldehyde in soy stands.  The work will be done by an independent lab, identified yesterday, that is blinded to the sample identification. Glutathione levels will be measured using commercial kits, using student help, so we can teach how science is used to deceive for political gains. 

The data will be open access and published in a real journal, with the hope to be a lovely example of how activists are invading our literature to push an agenda-- not to use the scientific method to find the truth.  



Thursday, July 23, 2015

GMO Formaldehyde Challenge!

Last week Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai published a systems biology paper in Agricultural Sciences.  The report left much to be desired, and was critically analyzed here.   The anti-GMO activist community exploded with the news that "GMOs are full of formaldehyde", of course not realizing that the paper represented a deeply flawed and testable conclusion, that was not tested. 

Nowhere in the existing literature, where tens of thousands of plant products have been analyzed, did anyone find actual measurements that match the predictions. When your computer prediction is wrong, then why publish it? 

Because it did exactly what it set out to do-- create fear and controversy around technology that folks like Ayyadurai and his spouse, the fabulous Fran Drescher, fail to appreciate. 

Fran and Shiva have been vigorously defending the work online, with Drescher even making the bold (tired) claim that scientists are all just working "4 monsanto".  She's even been so bold as to demand testing for formaldehye on all GM products based on hubby's computational synthesis. 


Which is not what the computer prediction found. 


A little agenda showing? 

Downside?  Changing safety protocols based on a crackpot computer program's output that does not match reality. 

Argument from authority.  Great to have degrees, too bad to see them misused to achieve unethical political gains-- scaring people from good, safe food with nonsense.


#ShowUporShutUp. I like it! 

Let's talk about #ShowUporShutUp.  It is really simple to measure formaldehyde levels quantitatively in plant extracts. I've started to build a collection of materials to actually do the test. 

I'll have probably a dozen soy/corn samples on hand in a week or so, both transgenic (GMO) and corresponding isolines. This way we can test the systems biology-driven hypothesis, potentially validating Ayyadurai's findings. 

I was hoping to just do this on my own to not waste lots of time. However, transparency and wider involvement would be a good thing.  

Therefore, I've invited Dr. Ayyadurai via Twitter to come to UF and do the extractions and analysis with me.  We can do this in a couple of days, no problem.  It probably should be video recorded just for transparency, and we can make a YouTube video afterwards.

Protocols and statistical methods will be determined mutually ahead of time, and results will be compared to those from an independent lab.  We'll make all raw data public. How cool is that? 

We do need to keep analysis pretty narrow to formaldehyde and glutathione, along with a few internal and spiked controls.  

We'd do extractions and separations together here, along with a colleague who specializes in such things.  The three of us would publish the results together, all three authors, and would report about how the results support, or do not support the hypothesis, "GMO crops have higher levels of formaldehyde, and lower levels of glutathione".  

All samples will be blind to researchers, and coded by a third party. We'll do formaldehyde using published protocols and glutathione using a commercially-available kit I'll buy this week.  All materials will be screened for transgenes/lack of transgenes using PCR, along with appropriate controls. 

In addition, I'll cover the cost of taking a subset of the materials, chosen by Dr. Ayyadurai, and sent to independent analysis. We will include formaldehyde-spiked samples as positive controls. 

I'm usually not so rude, but since Ms. Drescher used the term, how about #ShowUporShutUp?  

Or as it should be put, let's do the experiment. Let's agree to the materials to be used, and quantitative methods.  Let's agree on an independent lab to validate results. 

If it actually hyper-accumulates formaldehyde, then that Science paper will look pretty good on my CV.  

What do you say Shiva?  Let's do it.  Plus you'll have a good time down here in G-ville.  We'll welcome you with open arms and a kind spirit of finding the Truth through collaborative, transparent research. Show me I'm wrong, that would be just fine. Let's do it.