Monday, July 31, 2017

Hey Gary, Here's How University Funding Works

Last week the New York Times' Stephanie Strom published a report that there were meaningless levels of the herbicide glyphosate identified in ice cream-- Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Turns out that the organization that paid for the tests, Organic Consumers Association (OCA), has been trying to "force" (their word) Ben and Jerry's to source organic milk for some time to no avail.  

I reported here that such pronouncements are counter to the accepted methods of scientific publication, and that in absence of methods, replication and statistical treatments no sound conclusion could be made.  I hypothesized that the report might be payback for not sourcing organic milk. 

To the casual bystander this is rather low, and it is not looking good for the Organic Consumers Association. OCA is a relentless science-free religion exploiting the organic halo and all of its innocent presumptions.  OCA does not support organic production or farmers directly, they simply despise biotechnologies and modern genetics-- along with the companies and ag producers that use them. 

US-Right to Know and Gary Ruskin receive the vast majority of their operating funds from OCA, hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.  So while not realizing the irony, Gary comes to the defense of his funding stream with his best offense-- the shill card. 

Gary's post on Twitter posits that my defense of Ben and Jerry against an activist hit job must be inspired by money.  Some of us  just do what's right. 

First of all, I'll be tickled if this activist attack drives Ben and Jerry's out of business. Awesome.  Their brand has stood for non-scientific policies and misinformation about food.  They should go away.  Glad to see it.  I just don't think that alarmist propaganda and bogus data should be their demise.  But, if you live by the big dumb misinformation sword...

Under Gary's assumptions my university overlords must be piping angry with a public statement like that.  Nah. They don't care. They expect me to speak up against injustice. Plus, funds coming into universities from corporations doesn't usually trickle down to the trenches directly, and certainly not to professors personally. 


Let's use this blip of ignorance to examine how corporate funds donated to universities actually fund stuff.  Here goes!

1.  What Gary Thinks.  Well, frankly I'm not sure, but from his words it is clear that he believes money donated to a university somehow supports my salary, my research and my whimsy.

This is the perception, that corporations write a check to the university that ends up in the laps of researchers for discretionary investments. 

2.  What Actually Happens.  Corporate gifts are welcomed and cherished, as they significantly allow public universities to take on new capital campaigns that public funding usually does not. These gifts typically rarely directly fund a researcher's work. Instead they are used in larger projects that are desperately needed in today's crumbling universities. 
Large donors are appreciated because they help universities expand infrastructure, course offerings and statewide services in ways public funding alone cannot. 

3.  How Do Researchers Pay for Doing Research?  Funding comes from many places, but in most places it comes from federal or state grants.  Right now the funding rates are historically low, between 5-15% of submitted proposals being funded. Most funding solicitations happen only once per year, so many scientists go years without research funding for important projects. 

Rumblings from the White House and Congress suggest that even leaner times are ahead. 

When we are fortunate enough to find support, the funds go quickly. Personnel, materials services-- all extremely expensive. 
Researchers write grant proposals that are occasionally funded, the university gets a cut, then the rest of the funds go quickly in financing research. 

In the diagram above, if a researcher receives grant funding between 10-60% go to the university for "indirect costs".  These funds cover the cost of electricity, water, custodial services, heat, cooling, building repairs, office support staff, and other legitimate background costs that are required to perform research.  

The remainder goes to the researcher's program. With fringe benefits, postdoctoral researchers cost over $60,000 per year. Graduate students (stipend, tuition and fees) run about $35,000 per year, and we have to commit for at least four years. Few grant awards are that long in duration, so we roll the dice that we'll be able to finance a student if choose to take one on. It is a huge risk. Many of us do it knowing that we may be paying their stipend out of pocket. 

Worse, collaborative proposals fare better than single-investigator ones, so funds are split between labs or universities. A $500,000 award (typical for USDA, and only ~$350,000 after indirect costs are covered) can cover a postdoc or grad student for 2-3 years at one location and maybe some hourly technical assistance at the other.  That's all folks. 

If a centrifuge breaks, the lab pays to fix it.  If a freezer needs repair, the lab pays to fix or replace it.  The university furnishes a big empty space with utilities. The rest must be paid by the researcher's program. 

Most universities do offer some support for students and equipment, so it is not 100% on the researcher, but we have to plan it that way, and then welcome any assistance. 

How Much Comes from Evil Corporate Overlords?   Not much. Hardly any, so Gary's assertion that professors are somehow beholden to defend corporations is really sort of silly.  I didn't have the exact figures, but this is the overview for 2016. 

Corporate sponsorship is buried in that "other" piece of the pie.  In previous years it was about 3% of university funding. 

Here is the breakdown from the Ag and Natural Resources part of my university. 3.5% comes from corporations, $4,850,000.  That's probably about almost equal to the cost of fulfilling malicious FOIA requests. 
And in that 3.5% corporate chunk there is funding from Tupperware to learn how to make fresh fruit last longer, funding for organic production on how to help Tampa-area farmers extend profitable seasons, funding for improvement of blueberries and lettuce (non-GMO of course), dollars from fertilizer companies to help tailor use of fertilizers around sensitive watersheds-- and plenty of other beautiful work performed by the world's leading experts. 

Conclusion.  The shill card is easy to throw around, but doesn't stick when you analyze how university research really is supported.  We represent a great value for the public, putting service ahead of personal gain and striving to help farmers, consumers, the environment, and those in need, in our state and on our planet.  

And in the big scope of the things we do, the Ben and Jerry's brand or their parent company Unilever is not even on the remotest list of priorities. We appreciate their support, and they reap their dividends in an educated population and more sustainable food production. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Ben and Jerry's Roundup- A synopsis of this week's story

This week's podcast covers the Ben and Jerry's controversy spawned by a non-peer-reviewed report in the New York Times. Is this extortion for failure to play by activist rules?  Listen here. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Interview with Health Files Podcast

I do a few podcast interviews, but this one with Ania Kay was strangely important.  This episode of the Health Files Podcast was recorded in April, long before the discussions of genetic engineering as an agent of good, as shown in the film Food Evolution

I think this is one of my favorite interviews so far. 

As readers of this blog know, the movie Food Evolution spurred a sharply polarized response. Scientists are excited to have benevolent use of technology highlighted, while others call it "propaganda", suggesting that it is disingenuous to not talk enough about the downsides of technology. 

In this podcast I do just that-- strengths, weaknesses, limits, risks, and benefits. This is how I believe most scientists discuss the topic, as science!

I think this would be a good one to listen to for anyone formulating their opinion on the topic, as it reflects a range of issues and evidence that underlies them. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Grad Students Off Limits- Even if they are wrong

The boring saga of the Berkeley 45 continues, as several more have now emerged to ensure that their denial of fundamental science and deep scientific consensus is codified in the archives of time. At the same time, those on the science side of the discussion make a critical mistake-- piling on to a grad student, presumably the one that led the charge. 

Grad students make mistakes, we all do.  Our job as leaders should be to reach out, help them correct, and at worst, simply inspire their elevated thinking by doing the right thing. 

Unfortunately lots of folks have fallen into the trap of an eye for an eye.  She stuck her neck out in a poorly-advised way and now is being singled out and pummeled on blogs and in the Twittersphere in a way that could ultimately affect her long-term career options.

Some think that this is appropriate, that if she is going to make claims that run counter to science and besmirches the credibility of scientists she disagrees with, then she deserves it. What she needs is good counseling from university leadership, not potentially career-ending retribution. 

I look back on what bad people did to me to hurt me personally and professionally over the last years, and how UC-Berkeley faculty are doing it to me today.  Just do a google image search.  The good news is that I have two careers, university administrator and research scientist, that are established and successful.  So who cares who they think I work for and how they slander me daily about my science communication efforts? 

But this should not happen to a student, any of them. 

I did the right thing from the beginning by reaching out and asking them to share their thoughts with me and discuss this in a public forum as guests on my podcast.  My goal was to broadcast their views and maybe bring deeper understanding and peace to the situation. 

But the students and faculty did not accept, instead they walled off behind allegations and myth, hurling insults at me by email and posting false, defamatory links about me instead.  

None of them had the kind courtesy of send an email saying, "No thank you."

That not leadership, that is not collegiality... that is disgusting.  But they look bad for doing it. It also shows how apples don't fall far from trees. 

Again I repeat my call for taking higher roads.  As those that stand by science, we don't need to hurt others to win the debate. We're not like them.

Instead let's lead softly and effectively. Maybe the mind we'll change will be hers. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Fixing The Tragic Mess of the Berkeley 45

The release of the documentary Food Evolution was lauded by scientists and folks in agriculture, as finally someone attempted to generate a factual account of biotechnology.  But the film's release did not sit well with everyone, especially those that hold deep beliefs against technology, those that loathe seed companies, and those that make a living manufacturing and selling fear.

Will the real propaganda please stand up?

One group of 45 faculty and students, most at UC Berkeley, were held up as "experts" that claimed the film to simply be a "slick piece of agrichemical industry propaganda," which seemed strange because so little of the film dealt with any agrichemical anything.

Summarizing current events:

1. I invited the group to join a discussion on my weekly podcast, but none accepted, and a spokesman for the group, Prof. Miguel Altieri, sent an email stating that they would not take advantage of the opportunity.  Worse, Altieri said that I have no credibility based on the Eric Lipton New York Times hit piece. So much for critical evaluation and collegiality. 

2. Later, an email thread would end up with scientists outside of the 45 signatories.  The letter stated that "most" of the signatories did not see the movie.  I called this out because when you lend your reputation and expertise to an opinion as a scholar, it should be based on some actual evidence. 

3.  Using FOIA, which I do not support for these purposes, Stephan Niedenbach obtained information that US-RTK could only dream of finding-- evidence that outside groups influenced a document where academics provided false information about science.  In this case individuals from the Pesticide Action Network, the Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth and the Small Planet Institute, contributed to the opinion endorsed by the forty-five described experts. 

This may not be a problem in general, as academics certainly derive information from outside sources.  However, many of their statements were false, and in opposition to the vast scientific consensus. 

This is where it is a problem.  Outside activists influenced academic opinion to create and endorse a document that defames public researchers for positions held decades ago, and makes claims counter to the National Academy of Science.  Academics bestowed their credibility and institution's gravitas to support false, misleading statements about science. 

To fix this: 
The best immediate fix is for individuals caught in this mess to recant their endorsement.  It does not have to be love for the documentary or the state of agriculture. It needs to be honest.

Try this:

"I deeply regret signing on to the letter critical of Food Evolution. While I don't accept the science that biotechnology has any role in crop production, it was inappropriate to be critical of something I didn't see, and especially poor form to criticize Dr. Van Eenennaam and Mark Lynas for their affiliations rather than their actions or statements.

I do not agree with the statement that there is "no scientific consensus" on crop biotechnology.  The National Academy of Sciences has synthesized an excellent compendium of risks and benefits.

My motivations were based on other factors beyond the science itself, and it was wrong to condemn this film as propaganda.

I do believe that there is a needed higher-level discussion in this area and hope that going forward I may participate in more constructive and collegial dialog, rather than a motivated opinion that is inconsistent with the science."

Maybe they can give that a shot.  They can disagree with seed companies and the way we farm.  They are free to present alternatives and press for their implementation.  That's how we grow. We can learn from each other.

The way to do this wrong is to tag science as "industry propaganda", especially when they didn't even observe the thing they are so harshly criticizing. It is especially low to present information not consistent with the scientific consensus, and even worse when it is inspired by notoriously agenda-driven groups.

And of course, they are still invited to the podcast.  Science is about self-policing and correction.  That's how we grow as a discipline. Correcting this matter would be a good first step.  Rescind the Berkeley 45 letter and let's start a more productive dialog.  

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Serious Ethical Fail of the Berkeley 45

Last week I seriously questioned those that were writing off a new food/farming/science documentary as "agrichemical industry propaganda".  It seemed like a bad move to refer to proven and effective science as propaganda, and I was especially surprised that a group of 45 scientists would write a letter stating that conclusion.

When I approached them and asked them to help me understand their interpretation, I was shot down and told that I have no credibility.  No discussion, no words. My request for collegial scholarly discourse was denied. 

That's really low. But it gets lower. 

Let me remind you of the title of the article in Munchies that projected the claims of the Berkeley 45. 

And this is on Alex Swerdloff.  He either failed to do due diligence on who these "experts" were, or realized they were ideologically entrenched anti-biotech interests and did it anyway.  He certainly didn't reach out to level-headed, strengths/weaknesses, actual experts.  The National Academies of Science is full of them, and that phone didn't ring. FAIL.

Now let's take on the Berkeley 45 a bit more. 

1.  Most of them did not see the film before calling it "propaganda".  Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a prominent figure in the film, a renowned scholar herself, and the true expert Swerdloff should have contacted, was somehow copied in on a discussion where the Berkeley 45 formulated the letter.  The original draft said that "Full disclosure: most of us have yet to see the film in full."

These are academics lending their titles, authority, reputations, and expertise to review a scientific work-- that the majority didn't see.

And great that this full disclosure didn't make it into the Munchies article.  Again on Swerdloff. 

I hope they never get my grant proposals to review.  Why a scientist would endorse a conclusion they did not carefully formulate from evidence is a real mystery. 

2.  Their cited evidence is a published opinion piece rather than actual evidence.  They provide a link to a paper in Environmental Sciences Europe that supports their claim of no scientific consensus.  However, the paper they cite is authored by people that make a living (some paid handsomely) to deny science, serve as merchants of doubt, and present the patina of a scientific argument that just is not scientific. Few publish in scientific journals and when they do the work is of low impact and fringe interest. 

This is the conclusion the Berkeley 45 accept. It shows remarkable inability to critically evaluate the scientific literature and recognize the synthesis of the scientific community. The dissonance is stunning. 

There is consensus on crop genetic engineering, and it has been well told by the National Academies of Science after a grueling evaluation of evidence. The conclusions?  Safe to eat at this point, environmental impacts to address, and need for better regulatory rules going forward. 

That is a scientific consensus that the cited document denies exists.  

So why do 45 scholars choose a document written by a combination of fanatics, entrenched interests, and folks employed in the anti-biotech industry?  Beats me. Again a serious fail on their behalf, ignoring the consensus, and then showing that they have zero understanding of the literature, and are willing to sign their names on a document that places an activist rag over the synthesis of an esteemed scientific body. 

Why this matters. 

I'm a university administrator and spend a lot of time counseling young faculty and graduate students.  I do not understand how ideologically compelled these people must be to commit career suicide in the name of their cause. 

I'm particularly concerned because a number of the signatories are graduate students.  If they were compelled by faculty to sign on, this would be a serious problem.  If they want to reach out to me privately I will help them, and if faculty motivated students and young faculty to flush their credibility and trust down the toilet to dissuade the public from seeing a film-- it will be very ugly. 

And finally, I've received many emails saying that this is "just Berkeley".  I understand that sentiment. This is the place that screams of tolerance until you have a point to discuss that they can't tolerate. There clearly are people there that have created an ideological hive that projects claims based on their credibility and authority as scholars-- yet they hide from defending those claims.

Here a bad situation got worse for the Berkeley 45. Here 45 science minds show a strong lack of ethics and judgment.  They are willing to fall on a career sword because a new film tells and inconvenient truth. 

Think before you sign.  The internet lasts a long time.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Damage of Misplaced Activism

Today's Haiti Sentinel features an article by Editor-in-Chief Samuel Maxime.  He tells the scandalous tale of 150 tons of "genetically modified corn seeds" sent to Haiti from Mexico by CIMMYT-- a place sponsored by the likes of Bill Gates and other "Clinton confidants". 

Oh no! Seeds shipped for humanitarian aid! The atrocity must stop! But wait, are they really even GMO seeds?

Samuel is clearly displeased.  As he states, the seeds were sent to jumpstart the Hatian farming economy as part of a partnership between CIMMYT, USAID, and Feed the Future. 

Seems like a great idea, but he's not too happy about this. Why?  His next paragraph summarizes it well. Apparently the seeds create drug addicted soils and make farmers poor. 

Samuel also contends that these organizations are giving away seeds because their top priority is profit, which seems like a really lousy business model.  Here it is, right from the Editor-in-Chief:

And of course the comments section invites the critical review by self-appointed experts, flaming this cruel and malicious act of seed donation.  Monsanto mentioned in 3, 2, 1... 

As usual, facts are irrelevant and actually knowing what you are talking about just earns you angry Twitter trolls and FOIA requests for your emails.  Best just find a boogeyman and make up crazy shit. 

And not to be outdone, the rocket surgeons over at the Non-GMO Project chime in--

Wow!  This corn must be really awful stuff!  The Butterfly of Doubt says so!

This is an amazing example of how dangerous misplaced activism can be.  Here a humanitarian effort, but reputable non-profits and charities, is being maligned for shipping 150 tons of high-yield corn seed. This is a beautiful thing, even if it is GMO.

But it's not.    

 This is why clueless experts, an inflamed vocal public, and clueless fear mongers like Non-GMO Project are so dangerous. Here they decry the shipment of a safe product that will help the poorest farmers that desperately need it-- yet they all condemn the act has harmful. 

Again, their disdain for technology and their actions hurt people.

HUGO corn is not genetically engineered.    

Haitians live on about $1.25 a day and import most of their food. Subsistence farming is a challenge without crop protection products and Haiti can be a punishing climate for crops. Yields have been traditionally limited to one ton per acre. Yields elsewhere are routinely 3-6 tons per acre. 

HUGO corn yields seven tons per acre and has high protein levels. It was developed by CIMMYT by traditional breeding and was introduced to Haiti in 2007 by maize researcher Hugo Cordova. Farmers named the seed for him because of its superior performance.

However, over the last ten years the seeds have deteriorated in quality because of no control of the genetics.  The seeds sold as the farmer favorite HUGO, are not what they used to be.

So CIMMYT and USAID ramped up production of authentic HUGO seeds, now arriving in Haiti, much to the dismay of Samuel, some Facebook commenters and the Non-GMO Project.

The new seeds arrive with assistance in their propagation, and training in their cultivation.  The goal is to keep a good genetically-pure supply of seeds on hand for future plantings. 

This instance again reminds us of how the stand against agricultural biotechnology hurts people.  Here seeds are labeled by people who label products as unfit, of course, incorrectly. Calls to burn it and reject it beckon from mindless do-gooders that remind us of Hank Campbell's famous quotation:

"Anti-GMO activists hate corporations more than they love people"

And this is a stellar example.  

Originally posted on Medium