Saturday, August 26, 2017

TB97 Environmental and Economic Effects of Biotech Crops

The Brookes and Barfoot report is a dense, annual study of biotech crops impacts. Dr. Brookes summarizes the 2017 report on this week's podcast. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Scientist Harassed. Hear Her Story.

This week’s podcast is a discussion with Dr. Christine Lattin, a postdoctoral researcher in the Radiology and Biomedical Imaging Center at Yale University. Dr. Lattin examines stress responses in house sparrows using live imaging so that birds can be studied over and over through time.

However, Dr. Lattin has become a target of activists that have engaged malicious, personal attacks against her and her research.  The harassment has intensified into very personal acts of defamation and intimidation for this early career scientist.  We discuss the extreme measures she takes to ethically conduct her research and how her own personal reconciliation of how animals are important to research.  We then discuss what it is like to be the subject of an activist defamation campaign and personal attacks, and how to not just survive it- how to turn it into something positive.

The discussion is powerful and emotional, and hopefully will stir further awareness of how scientists are attacked because of their research.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Wrecking the Twitter Experience

Twitter can be a great tool for rapid review and dissemination of thoughts, criticism, and media.  However, about six months ago Twitter revised the program so that the @usernames did not count against the 140 character limit.  At that point a culture of strategic, well worded posts between a few users changed. 

Twitter went from useful to intolerable. 

Now there are threads with 40 users involved, sparring endlessly about issues like GMO, vaccines and climate. These are now good science allies arguing endlessly with people known to be disruptive agitators with no interest in actual science. 

Please stop entertaining them. 

I've blocked the trolls, so now I sit and watch well-intentioned people that have the science right pop up on the thread one after another, arguing with trolls.  I see one side of the argument, but that's all I see.  Hundreds of posts, one after the other. 

Now I'm missing valuable messages that I want to see, because I'm watching one side of a conversation that should not be happening.  I'm glad to share a thought with someone trolling, especially if they are new. I don't want to make the mistake of blocking someone with honest questions.

But to continually go back and forth with @peterdoodes, @GOPJesus, @H_O_G_, @Olivefarmer, @normonics, @JCal1969, @glyphosate9570, @Organics4Free, @beachvetlbc, @JodiKoberinski, @alafiagrandma, etc 

What are you thinking? 

I know some of these folks personally and you'll never change their minds in 140 characters.  Don't waste your time.  Others are there just because they love to agitate.  Don't play into it. 

And the Twitter tool of "mute conversation" does not work well. 

If we all blocked the same group of trolls, we could focus on providing information that wish to learn, wish to understand, and want to know the science.  Let them scream in their own echo chamber.  Some engagement is fine, but stop after 10 back-n-forths! 

If it keeps going I have to block/mute the people I appreciate, just so I can revive the functionality of the twitter feed. 

Please stop entertaining the anti-science crowd. 

Focus on the teachable. 

Focus on people that want to learn.

Don't waste your time on true believers.

They didn't formulate their opinions on evidence, so evidence will not change their minds. 

Have a Nice Day!

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.