Saturday, September 24, 2016

A Letter to Cornell: Please Stop Sciencing.

A letter arrived on Cornell University Dean Kathryn Boor's desk this week. The same letter was sent to the Board of Trustees. Sixty-seven people from New York State's organic farming community requested that the dean give the Cornell Alliance for Science the boot from the campus.  They feel that such efforts have "no place at a Land Grant institution."

Alliance for Silence? 

I'm familiar with the Alliance for Science and have even participated in their training sessions and discussions.  I'm know what it is, what it isn't.  It is stunning to me that people would complain to university administration that the exchange of scholarly ideas regarding agricultural technology would be objectionable.  Well, maybe not so stunning. 

The headlines at Sustainable Pulse present the argument against Alliance for Science. It is, "We don't like that the evidence fails to support our beliefs, so we want you to stop talking about it."

In short, the Alliance for Science recruits international fellows, students, scientists and others to teach them the science behind new agricultural technologies.  The efforts are supported by a $5.6 million grant to Cornell University from the Gates Foundation. Their stated mission:  

The Cornell Alliance for Science seeks to promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability and raising the quality of life globally. 

Now let's keep that kind of stuff off of our campuses. 

The participants represent many countries, and see technology as a way to improve lives of the needy in their homeland.  They have witnessed poverty and experienced food insecurity from the inadequacies of traditional agricultural methods.  Like others, they do not want to be the recipients of aid, the handouts of the affluent West. 

Instead, they want to feed their own nations. Technology, and perhaps genetic engineering, has a role in those agricultural innovations. 

The letter to Cornell University Administration. Instead of stating precisely what content is objectionable, they want to censor topics they consider "controversial". 

When I participated in Alliance for Science we saw talks from plant breeders, animal breeders, experts in biotech and experts in traditional genetics. I never got the feeling that it was "advocacy".  Not at all.  It was scientists teaching others about science. That's what we do. 

The problem is that here's a letter that says to a university program run by university faculty, we don't like what you are teaching, so the university should stop it. 

Can you imagine if this is how decisions were made in universities?  We could not teach about climate, vaccines, evolution, stem cell research.... the list goes on and on. 

Universities should be a marketplace of ideas, but ideas that are defendable and borne of evidence.  If Cornell's Alliance for Science is a biased, dangerous, propaganda, public relations move as critics claim, then bring out the specifics.  Here is the presentation I gave.  What is false, biased, or not in keeping with what we know about science?

The letter writers bypass the scientific process.  That is, they don't like the evidence, don't like people learning evidence, so they complain to university administration to stop that information from flowing. Cornell, you are sciencing too much and it must be stopped.

Science is not a democracy, it is a meritocracy.  Good ideas prevail and they don't worry much about your beliefs.  If something is objectionable to this sect of New York State farmers, they should present that evidence.  Let's have an honest conversation. 

Writing a letter, complaining to university administration, calling for a science program to be removed from campus is just a weak move.  It comes off as petty and childish.  What we learn from organic farmers is important to many production scenarios. This letter again makes those adhering to organic production techniques come off as a wacky fringe, rather than a scientific discipline, and that just sets the field backwards. 


Sunday, September 18, 2016

New York State PTA Resolutions Earn an “F” in Science

The New York State Parent-Teachers Association (NYS PTA) has presented itsproposed resolutions for the 2016 school year. Leafing through them I find comfort in Retention #4 on page 2 that clearly states that textbooks and instructional materials will be up-to-date, factual and unbiased. Such strong affirmations guaranteeing adherence to teaching based on our best methods and evidence is a credit to the NYS-PTA.
But on page 13, New Resolution #1 breaks the pledge of up-to-date, factual and unbiased. The resolution being considered makes several claims about “Genetically modified organisms (GMOS) and genetically engineered (GE) foods”. They cite a “link” between such products and “negative health consequences”, that their standards ban “unhealthy products”, and claim that there is insufficient evidence that such food products are safe for human consumption.
This new resolution asks for state legislation to ban products from genetically engineered plants (actually they say “GMOS and GE foods”, but I’ll be more precise in my wording) in school meal programs and vending services. To its credit, the resolution does recommend that parents and community members receive education on “GMOs and GE food products.” No argument there, as long as the education is based on legitimate reproducible scientific evidence, although I suspect the authors have different intentions.
New Resolution #1 concludes with a statement. The second line reads, “Some research suggests an association between GMO and GE food consumption with grave health hazards, such as tumor development, kidney and liver toxicity and even death in laboratory and food production animals.” That is not factual and unbiased, as guaranteed in Retention #4 on page 2.
The statement continues, “Other research suggests environmental hazards, such as killing off of beneficial microorganisms and pollinators, and contamination of water supplies.” The statement concludes, “Until GMO and GE food safety is conclusively supported by good science, NYS PTA proposes acting with caution and keeping these products out of school provided food and drinks.” Again, allegations and a conclusion based on no credible scientific evidence.
It is clear that we need to be teaching our students to think critically, that they need deeper immersion in science, technology, engineering and math, the STEMdisciplines. We need to be training the next generation of scientists and engineers with the up-to-date, factual and unbiased information requested by the NYS PTA in their opening Retention #4.
So how can the NYS PTA ever claim to support STEM disciplines and adherence to evidence-based information, when they are suggesting food bans based on bad science? How can they seek to teach students how to critically weigh evidence when they fail to do that in their own proposed resolutions?
The statements the crafters of the resolution made are not based on evidence. They are extensions of bias and belief, of perhaps an activist agenda that periodically visits school boards and PTAs. For example, in recent years school districts wanted to label science textbooks referencing evolution as “only a theory”. Other school districts have sought to use textbooks that challenge evidence of antropogenic climate change. The anti-genetic-engineering sentiment is just another example of forcing bad policy to match the beliefs of a few on a fringe that pick and choose the scientific information they wish to consume.
How can we teach students to respect the scientific method and to trust peer-reviewed and reproducible science, when the rules and restrictions they are educated under reflect distortions, myths and falsehoods?
The National Academies of Science, the USA’s most esteemed brain trust, performed a massive review of the scholarly literature and probably one-hundred interviews with scientists on the topic of genetically engineered crops. Their conclusions—there is no evidence that these crops are unsafe for consumption, and there is no evidence of any health risk greater than crops derived from conventional breeding. Certainly they recognize some environmental impacts such as the generation of resistant weeds, but that is an herbicide and management question more than an indictment of genetic engineering as a variety improvement discipline. There is no evidence that these crops have negative effects on pollinators by virtue of genetic engineering.
The health risks the crafters of this resolution cite are aging relics from one-off publications that were typically not based on proper scientific design or performed with proper statistical rigor. In all cases, such reports have not been independently reproduced or expanded, and fade into the forgotten gutter of bad science, or perhaps in retrospect have a stink of scientific misconduct. Good science grows. These reports were dead on arrival, and now slowly disappear into irrelevance.
The 2016 NYS PTA resolutions have clearly been hijacked by stemless activism, minor opinions wishing to impose their beliefs on the food choices and perhaps the scientific education of New York Public School children. How can we expect our children to be excited about science, technology, engineering, and math, if the rules they live under shun STEM, and are built on an agenda of politics, ignorance, fear mongering and myth?

Originally posted 9/17/2016 in Huffington Post Blogs. Original article may be accessed here. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Joy of Teaching

One of the sad ironies of modern education is that the more expert you become in your field, the harder you have to work to be able to get in front of a classroom. It comes as no surprise.  Our primary role (mine is 80%) is research, leaving only 20% for teaching, and that is mostly satisfied by direct supervision of graduate students. 

I'm also a full-time administrator, so that takes the rest of my time.  I get to do a lot of guest lectures and teach about 25% of a graduate course in the area of sensory biology and biochemical signal transduction. 

This semester I had a problem.  A scientist on the faculty here was serving in Washington with NSF.  He taught undergraduate molecular biology, a key course for many students.  

There is no possible way that I should have taken on teaching an undergraduate course.
But wow, I'm so glad I did. 

While I should never have done it, I jumped at the chance to teach his course, and ended up teaching the first third of it.  

It was a pleasure to talk about the fundamentals of DNA and RNA, about basic biochemistry and the techniques and methods that shape our foundation of modern biotechnology. 

They were a quiet class.  It was at 8:30 in the morning and that might have something to do with it. 

Yesterday I gave them the exam.  It was my last time with them.

As they turned in their exams something very unusual happened. 

I'd say about half of them held out their hand for a handshake and said thank you. 

I have to always remember that day.  Opportunities to share science are frequent, and they take tremendous time, preparation and effort. 

This time I got the feeling that it was truly appreciated, and maybe those efforts made a difference.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

One Year After, the Beating Continues

One year ago the New York Times published a front-page article dedicated to my defamation.  In a sensationalist move, a well-known reporter took a batch of my personal emails acquired by Freedom of Information Act (that I surrendered without resistance) and created a story that was designed to destroy my career and bring me personal harm. The emails were originally obtained and distributed by an activist group well funded by corporations with the intent of silencing me, a scientist that simply discusses science. 

A year later the story appears again on Alternet, and author Lorraine Chow perpetuates the cherry-picked lies, the distortion and defamation started by USRTK and New York Times' Eric Lipton a year ago.  This is under the "investigations" section, which turns out means cut-and-paste from another website. 

Without any evidence other than the distorted words of trash journalism, Chow continues defamation of my efforts to simply educate scientists and ag professionals on how to discuss the issues of biotechnology. 

Of course, the article never states anything I've said incorrectly, any rules I've broken, or anything I've ever done that is unethical or unfair.  It is a first-class ad hominem smear, attacking me for doing my job as an educator.  

Chow also fails to provide any evidence of her sub-head claim that anyone "bought" science.  The evidence is the same before I had any interaction with a company, when I had interaction with a company, and now that I don't have interaction with a company.  The facts are the facts.

Chow reiterates the words that made me spit my coffee all over my computer screen last year, that I'm in the "inner circle of corporate consultants..."  OMG.  Really?  

She also reiterates the damaging, cherry-picked line that was pulled from over 4600 (now 27,000) pages of emails...

Yes, that's what I said, but what did it mean, in context? 

As I've described previously, the email was not between me and an "executive".  It was between me and one of their field people, a friend that visited Colorado farmers with me back in September of 2014. 

She was appalled by an ad campaign by anti-GM folks in an Oregon paper that was false and misleading about food and science. It was blatant manipulation and lies, false information presented to scare the public. 

She told me (and this is all in the emails) that a number of scientists were organizing an Op Ed in the same paper as well as a petition, standing up to misrepresentation of science and agriculture, and denouncing the harmful misinformation.

I was glad to add "sign on" to that list, or even help with the Op Ed.

Yep, that's it.  If Chow bothered to read the emails rather than pile on to the defamation campaign, it would have been rather clear.  But that's not the point.  The point is to hurt a scientist that teaches science they find inconveniently incompatible with their beliefs. 

If you can't argue the evidence, smear the scientist. 

I could go on about the piece, but the bad information has long been debunked.

Of course, Chuck Benbrook, the guy who's salary and research was all financed by the organic industry is not mentioned, and he published work using estimates instead of real data that supported his (and the industry's) desired outcome.  He also defends ideological concepts that are not compatible with a scientific consensus.  Shill?  Nah.

The good news is that the scientific community is waking up and sees such defamation for what it is-- desperate efforts of a dying anti-scientific movement tied to a couple of hack authors cashing a check by confirming the biases of misguided people.

While it is sad to see this kind of effort resurface, it reminds us that all of us in climate, vaccines, evolution and genetic engineering need to continue to raise public awareness about the science-- despite the activists that want to stop our messages. 


Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Giant Leaves Us

Dr. Roger Tsien has died, a giant in biology. This Nobel laureate pioneered the use of fluorescent molecules so that we could see inside cells, and better interpret the harmony between biology's building blocks.

His innovations forever changed our ability to translate the unseeable into visible depictions we could analyze and celebrate.

Image result for fluorescent proteins

Image result for fluorescent proteins

Image result for fluorescent proteins

Image result for fluorescent proteins

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Eggplant Podcast Sparks Angry Response

My podcast has been up for over a year, now reaching 50 episodes.  In that time it has been a pleasure to cater to an audience of scholars and science enthusiasts.  I've deliberately kept the content hard with science, minimal with opinion, and sticking to the evidence.  I've avoided Big Ag products and focused on the good things technology can do.  

In general, the anti-GMO world has left me alone.  I don't find much negativity about the podcast online and the site itself is generally unmolested.  I do occasionally receive disparaging comments, but curate most of them out when received. This is an educational forum. 

So imagine my surprise when I posted this week's podcast on the Bt Brinjal (eggplant, aubergine).  The response was angry and vitriolic, both in submitted comments and in social media. 

The podcast comments section has a dozen comments like these, all unapproved. I'm not allowing an educational resource to become their cesspool. 

Some of the response on Twitter was surprising (I asked for permission to use their fully names, the principle dissenter objected, so I edited him out. However, this is all public information on Twitter if you go read those threads and their amazing ignorance in their entirety).  

The Twitter threads are priceless.  This wonderful resource is smeared as another arm of Monsanto's empire.  Even when folks are corrected, they just push back. 

More on Twitter.  Good ol' Rick H never really offers evidence, but sure is quick to throw someone under the bus. 

What is happening here is amazingly obvious.  As "Carl's Spokesman" says, these folks are really angry because the Bt Brinjal let's all of the air out of their balloon.  Free seeds, poor farmers, less insecticides, better products.... where's the downside? 

The downside is that if this story becomes widely told, it represents the end of their war on science.  It is an example of how the technology should be used-- for the betterment of human health and the environment. 

They are having a remarkably hard time arguing with that.

So what happens when ideologically bent opinion can't argue based on evidence?  It becomes an ad hominem effort to trash the messenger.  The personal attacks on my credibility and the continued mantra of "Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto," is typical of these folks when they are backed into their corners with simple, kind questions. 

It appears that science has hit a nerve.  Some of the poorest people are growing food and eating, sustainably.  You'd think that critics would be celebrating.  But to an emotional and science-free movement, when the technology they oppose serves others, they are caught between acknowledging that it is doing good and abandoning their sacred belief that this technology can do no good-- ever. 

Maybe that just means that their beliefs need to be re-examined. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Eggplant that is Feeding the Hungry

This week's Talking Biotech Podcast is a beautiful story.  The eggplant (brinjal, aubergine) is an important food staple in Asia.  However, in places like India and Bangladesh it requires large amounts of old-school pesticides to grow, as pest pressure can destroy 100% of a crop. 

Scientists have introduced the Bt Protein into eggplants and have greatly mitigated insect pressures from burrowing insects. It does not solve all insect problems (bt is quite selective) but it has massively cut pesticide applications and provides farmers a better product at lower production costs. 

The two guests are Dr. Tony Shelton from Cornell University and science journalist Dr. Hidde Boersma. Together they tell their accounts of the technology and how it has transformed lives of poor farmers in an extremely poor country.