Sunday, September 20, 2015

Talking Biotech #17 -- Insects and Ag, Art & Science, McClintock on the $10




This week we’re joined by Richard Levine, communications director for the Entomological Society of America.  We discuss bees, butterflies, insecticides and some of the current issues in crop protection from an entomological perspective.  We then turn to the idea of promoting artwork using a science podcast, and the important effort to get Dr. Barbara McClintock on the ten dollar bill, replacing some guy. We discuss the barriers to her participation in science, and describe why she would be such a fitting presence on our currency– not just because she was a woman, not just because she was a scientist, but because she broken down barriers.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Setting a New Standard in Science Transparency

Recent events have brought criticism that I believe can be addressed with more information.


This story contains a link to PDFs that shows all of my outreach and extension activities, how much I was reimbursed, how much I was paid and what honoraria were received (and where they went).

This will be posted here at least bi-monthly, so bookmark this page.

The complete list of Kevin Folta outreach and extension activities:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What are "Close Ties" to Monsanto? A FAQ.

FAQ

What exactly are "close ties"?  These claims were make by Keith Kloor in the August Nature article.  The same claims are now reiterated in following articles, without justification, simply based on that initial statement. Of course, I never claimed to have a working relationship with Monsanto, because I don't have one. But let's clarify what this relationship is once and for all.

What are "close ties"?  (Apologies to Keith Kloor, I did originally write this blog with "deep ties" and that's my mistake) Here is the extent of interaction with the Monsanto Corporation:

Are these close, personal or research ties I need to disclose at every research seminar?  You decide.  Tell me in the comments section. 


1. Donation to science outreach program that paid no salary or personal funds.  These (relatively small) funds were designed to cover a small projector, facility rental, plane tickets, rental cars/taxi costs, coffee-doughnuts-sandwiches for participants in a science communications workshop.  All funds were moved from the communications program and given to a campus charity. Ultimately no funds were used for Folta's program.

2.  ONE reimbursed travel event.   In 13 years as a professor, the Monsanto company requested that Folta speak to farmers at a single farm event in Colorado.  This is normal and acceptable, but there are no funds to support Folta's travel, so it is customary for the company to pay that amount.  A total of approximately $600 covered hotel, airfare and other costs.  No honorarium or speaker fees were provided.

3.  TWO non-reimbursed visits to the Company.  In 2014 and 2015 Folta was in the St.Louis area and arranged to discuss ideas learned about effective science communication.  He visited at the request of an employee that met Folta at a separate science communications event in May, 2014. No funding was provided for travel. A hotel was provided one night in 2014.  Lunches and dinners were provided, two in 2014, one in 2015. Folta received no speaker fees or honoraria. A company employee paid for coffee in 2015.

4.  Friends in the company. Former students, former colleagues, other scientists keep in contact with Folta and work at this company. This is not uncommon and certainly expected for professionals that work in agricultural sciences.

5.  Hosted Robb Fraley's talk at UF.  Dr. Robb Fraley is Monsanto's Chief Technology Officer, and Folta arranged his visit to UF as part of a series of high-profile visitors associated with ag biotechnology.

6. Email.  Several dozen emails were seized in the FOIA request and are all related to the events above.  These are perhaps 40 total emails of 90,000 total during the FOIA period.

7.  Mints and Lip Balm.  Folta did take complimentary mints and lip balm from the Monsanto booth at a trade show.



It is difficult to understand how all of this normal, professional, and minor interaction can be interpreted as "close ties".  However, these words continue to emerge in articles concerning the interaction, and falsely portray the relationship, which was simple, professional, collegial, and part of the job of a Land Grant department chair and professor.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The FOIA Babe, and the New Abuse of Vanity Harassment

I’ve been a critic of the Food Babe for a long time.  Actually, I’ve been the critic of anyone that attempts to manipulate the public perception of science, while presenting zero scientific evidence.  Especially deplorable are those that use fear to force a message, and scare people about safe food while profiting in the process.

It’s an old story now, but when ‘Food Babe’ Vani Hari visited my university to sell her science-blind worldview I was not exactly thrilled.  We professors are tasked to teach from evidence, with foundation in a scholarly literature.  Why would we subject our students to the daft rants of a dim food activist that lines her pockets by frightening people away from safe food?

I have always been an appropriate critic.  I’ve addressed her specific points with evidence and even have been complimentary at times.  She certainly is a gifted communicator, and can mobilize the drones that exploit social media to blackmail corporations into aggressive change, not based on science, but based on coercion.  That is not a fair way to inspire change.

Because I teach facts of a controversial public concern, I’m currently enduring multiple invasive, expensive public records requests. Three years of personal, private emails have been confiscated by US-Right To Know, an activist organization led by Gary Ruskin that harasses public scientists that teach the inconvenient truth about agricultural biotechnology.  For 15 years I’ve spoken about genetic engineering with the public, helping concerned citizens to understand this scientific tool.  They’ve been trying to stop me for ages. FOIA laws are their new weapons.

I complied without hesitation.  I had nothing to hide.  But as I anticipated, when you give 5000 pages of email to people paid well to silence you, they will find little nuggets of manufactured pseudo-guilt that they’ll parade in the interest of destroying credibility.  I happily turned over my personal records, and activists started immediately misinterpreting them in public places.  Even Pulitzer Prize winners skillfully threaded sentences together to customize damaging false narratives which were more unethical than unfair.

Not to be outdone, Vani Hari needed some of that attention.  “What did that evil professor say about me?”  Now the laws made to help dissolve barriers to resolve cases of malfeasance and wrongdoing were mobilized as an underhanded discovery tool, a way for a marginal celeb to try to regain some of her ill-gotten traction at the expense of a scientist that simply teaches science.

This is FOIA abuse.  She will cost my university tens of thousands of dollars to weed through my private correspondences one by one, making sure that the emails they provide to her do not contain student information.  It is an arduous and expensive undertaking.  Why?  Well Vani likes Vani, and while she can’t point to anything I’ve done wrong, she wants the emails.  Just like Ruskin.

I can hear it now from Food Babe headquarters, “He didn’t do anything wrong, so let’s find some things we can make look wrong—just need those emails!”

More importantly, she wants to sift through my emails in a sick cyber voyeurism, a pathetic, vain and egocentric glimpse into a professor’s daily interactions.  Just because she can.  This inconsistent with the spirit and intent of these important laws. It is an unwarranted burden to taxpayers and a deliberate and unfair means to inflict harm on a decorated public servant.

So what do the prying eyes need to see?  Secrets to clandestine corporate collusion? 

Nah, Ruskin beat and buried that dead horse, extracting a few lame-o quotes and funding to a science literacy effort.  Oh, the humanity.

What can Vani learn?  Gosh, the things she cares about most – VANI !  Here’s your tax dollars at work.  She wants:


You will be glad to know that high-priced lawyers will search for “babe” as directed.  Tax dollars will unearth a copy of my Amazon review of that crappy talking pig movie.


Well, Vani, a quick check of my account and you were not mentioned much at all.  You are not relevant outside of Infowars and your adoring fans. 

This is all pretty simple.  Vani Hari is a self-consumed amateur that is determined to discredit her critics.  Why?  She sits atop a multi-million dollar empire of corporate slander and internet sales.  

Why would she possibly exploit expensive public records requests to delve into the emails of a professor dedicated to public education?

Because he teaches facts, and more facts translate to fewer profits for Vani.

So instead of meeting him head-on about the science in a visible and public space, she uses a public records request to sneak a peek through his private correspondence in the hopes of…  not sure what.

In fact, I deliberated whether I should even write this.  But it is not about me, not about Vani Hari—it is about abuse of a system to harm others that don’t share your stupid opinion. It brilliantly illuminates the trendy abuse of the FOIA system.  Here, out of curiosity, out of vanity, Vani Hari ignites an expensive, invasive system designed to resolve criminal investigations--- to see if someone said something unbecoming about her.  

I could have told her that stuff for free.  Sorry Florida taxpayers!

It is a mockery of this important transparency system.  Most of all, this exemplifies why these rules need immediate revision.  Here a doomed food personality with no training and no scientific credibility bandwagons on to a popular trend of abusing rules to damage professorial reputations of reasonable scientific critics. When you can’t raise your own argument, find some sleazy loophole to tear down the credibility of others.

We have entered the era of vanity harassment and fact-twisted internet assassinations of public scientists. 


And who better to accelerate that trend than Vani Hari?  

Monday, September 7, 2015

Cherry Picking to Harm Reputations

As a scientist that has only spoken facts and truths about biotechnology, I have become the enemy of those that want to propagate myth, and scare people away from safe food. I have been active in public education on the topic for 15 years.

In February the US Right to Know organization, backed by funding from the Organic Consumers Association, used public records laws to confiscate 5000 pages of email from me. 

When you turn over 5000 pages of email to people that want to harm you, guess what?  They will attempt to harm you. 

This is another perfect example of their best smoking gun, a pulled, out-of-context quotation that seeks to frame me as some sort of corporate lackey.  Here it is:




Sounds pretty insidious! 

But what does it really say in context? 

It starts with a hideous scare commercial that is aired by GMO labeling campaigns in Fall 2014. They show Ray Seidler holding conventional corn seeds along with a handful of untreated seeds.  The associated rhetoric is ominous and scary. The seeds are blue, due to the fungicide and insecticide coating, and are held in a rubber glove. They are described as freaky abominations of science and dangerous to the consumer. 

It was an emotional scare piece, and the folks against labeling were planning a response.

I thought the use of fear was deplorable, and unfair. So I was excited to sign on to support any Op-Ed efforts to talk about the scientific truth of the ad. I was glad to see that science-minded people were promoting science, facts and reason and offered support. 


This is the letter where they extracted the quotation above. 



As a scientist, my analysis means something, and it is not uncommon for scientists to support various campaigns or initiatives.  My support for truth and fairness around the labeling issue is welcome and appropriate.

GM Watch and Gary Ruskin have pulled this quotation out of context to harm my reputation and create the perception that I am a lapdog of some company.  However, in context it shows no such thing.  

Furthermore, I'm glad to talk to write or speak for anyone that asks. That's my job.  Monsanto is in the vast minority, offering me a few opportunities over the last few years. They do not control my words. 

This is a perfect example of the dangers of transparency abuse. Ruskin and others know that single quotations taken out of context can be damaging.  That's why they want the emails, and that is how they will be used. 

Will scientists stop talking about these topics?  Absolutely. Who would want their words taken out of context to harm their careers?   





Sunday, September 6, 2015

Recent Events FAQ

1. What is your relationship with Monsanto?

I have no formal relationship with the company.  Friends, former students, colleagues from previous jobs work there.  They once made a relatively small donation to my university to cover travel/production costs of my science communication program in August of 2014.  The entire original amount was reallocated to a campus charity. Monsanto does not fund my research and never has. I have spoken at the company twice about science communication and enjoyed collegial hospitality.

As is clear by emails, I'm glad to share thoughts and opinions with them on science communication. I hold no formal capacity in this regard. I do this with any company and show no special favor to Monsanto.


2. What is your relationship with Ketchum?

Ketchum runs the GMO Answers website. As an educator, I’m always excited about new ways to communicate science, and am especially eager to harness the reach of well-designed and promoted electronic media. The GMO Answers website was a great opportunity to answer questions for a concerned public using scientific evidence.  The website remains extremely useful, and is an recognized resource for a curious public to have questions answered. I still answer questions for the public via that medium, and will do so until there are no questions to answer.  I receive no compensation for my answers, and all reflect strict interpretations of the scientific literature. 


3.  Did you receive reimbursement for travel from anyone?

Absolutely.  As an expert in my area of research (fruit genomics, LED light in controlled environments) I am frequently asked to travel to companies (such as LED light companies or greenhouses), fruit companies (Driscoll’s etc), or universities (many).  I provide a seminar about my lab’s research and interact with companies to aid in their research directions and designs.  It is customary for those requesting the presentation to cover the related travel and lodging costs.

I'm a cheap date. I don't want anything special, basic creature comforts.

Similarly, if a company wants me to speak on biotech communication, they pay my associated costs.  If politicians request to hear from an expert, the companies, professional societies, or industry groups may be willing to cover my costs.  That is normal and customary.  The university does not cover travel costs and my laboratory has no travel budget outside of grant-sponsored travel specific to the project.

It is important for these parties to hear from scientific experts, and the scholarly literature should be the central driver of policy decisions.  Therefore, my voice is important in these cases, and I'm grateful for anyone that is willing to cover my minimal costs to participate in such discussions. 


4. Do you receive speaker fees or honoraria?

Occasionally I am offered fees for my time, again, which is customary and appropriate.  Those funds could go to me personally, but I recommend they are directed to fund my outreach program. In essence, funding to me, goes to fund outreach. 


5.  Did Ketchum write your answers on GMO Answers?

Early in the first months of GMO Answers a Ketchum employee provided scientifically precise answers as samples for what I might choose to write.  They were offered as a guide.  I can find two cases where I read and modified their template. I answered the other 65 with zero prompting. 

It is not uncommon for scientists, politicians, journalists and others to have staff prepare draft documents.  I am not compensated for my time, and these are lengthy answers, so the well crafted answers from Ketchum were used as a starting point to produce a hard answer that was scientifically correct.  This is a common and acceptable practice, as busy people work from outlines framed from others. Hence the occupation, "speechwriter".

However, I pride myself on documents generated from a blank page. I just like the way I write. These two examples were uncharacteristic conveniences, and will be replaced with answers that are completely my own words.  They provide an identical message.  It is not an admission of guilt. It is my way to say, that only my words appear online. 


6. What did you mean by "I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like"?  

Simple.  I appreciate opportunities.  Out of context this sounds nefarious, but it is what I say to anyone that extends me an opportunity to speak, write or participate.  I make this statement daily, and it is my job to provide scholarly interpretations of the literature, relate science to schools, and aid our state extension personnel in communicating this science.  I am glad to help anyone that offers me an opportunity to write or speak, if it means better understanding of science.

Cherry picking a quote from industry emails neglects the thousands of interactions I have with school groups, retirement homes, statewide non-GMO fruit industries, nationwide industries and the many other places I help teach science. 


7.  Has a company's financial or other influence ever influenced the science you communicate? 

No.  These are my words and no company has, or ever will, influence what they are.  They are interpretations of the scholarly literature, and in agreement with a vast scientific consensus.

I guess we could say that support allows me to do it more often, thereby influencing the frequency of the communications events.  However, only I provide content. All of my talks, lectures and workshops are available online at Slideshare.net. 


Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Lobbyist of Love...

Lots has been said about me lately, and while it is tempting to respond, I have to retreat inside my own head.  I know what I've said, I know the facts, and it has always been the truth, and so time will be kind.  

Authors are looking for a story, and showing conspiracies and collusion always raises an eyebrow, so these folks are just out to make a splash at the expense of others, even if facts are thin and don't exactly mesh with reality.  Welcome to Journalism 2015.

To be characterized as a lobbyist is rather laughable, and as such makes this a non-issue.  Here's something to think about-- if scientists are not supposed to be speaking to politicians, farmers, companies and the public about science, then who should? 


I'm doing my job, and doing it well, and I don't have a budget for travel.  If politicians and companies want to hear about the science, they should at least get me a plane ticket to come talk about it.

Speaking of which, back in October I was asked to go to PA to talk to the House of Representatives Ag Committee.  I don't have such funds, so BIO paid my plane ticket. Thanks BIO!  How cool to be able to share published science with real decision makers! 


At the same time, Chuck Benbrook was heading to the same meeting.  Who paid his ticket?  Who cares?  I don't. 

Since we're in the age of divulging email content, here's one that everyone conveniently forgot to post.  Enjoy. 


The blacked out part is my cell number.  Wow, I'm so awful

It is super disappointing to see the cherry-picking, selective omission and extreme editing that this NYT author used to create a false narrative. 5000 pages of email from three years, and that's the best they can assemble from lifted quotations. Geez. If this is what NYT does, then maybe good journalism is dead. 

Thanks everyone for your support.  This thing is a non-issue. I'm making a difference, so they'll be doing everything they can to take me down, even if it is making up stories of being a lobbyist for big ag.

If teaching science is being a lobbyist, then I've been a lobbyist in the classroom my entire life.  If this is lobbying, it is a special kind that is backed by evidence, and done in a spirit of love and kindness so that others are inspired to learn, know facts, and help shape the future of food and natural science.