On E-mails, Ethics, and FOIA

On E-mails, Ethics, and FOIA

Controversy surrounding e-mails from scientists are sweeping across the Facebook pages of those following the GMO debate.  One of our regular contributors, Richard Green, adds his perspective to the issue.

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There has been contention and uproar over Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding several academic scientists working in agricultural genetic engineering and even more recently for a scientist involved in organic agriculture.  The initial requests were led off by the organic industry leaning US Right to Know (USRTK) which in turn prompted a request from one of the science communicators behind the popular We Love GMOs and Vaccines Facebook page.  Only one of these efforts resulted in the proverbial smoking gun.

In a perfect world, neither of these requests would have been undertaken.  Although legal, I find the tactics disreputable.  Such use of FOIA comes off as intimidation rather than truth seeking. That being said, once one side opens that door, it is not unreasonable to expect the other side to walk through it as well. Unfortunately for USRTK, opening this door has backfired on them as evidenced by the recently released information on a scientist associated with organic agriculture.

Dr. Charles M. Benbrook is an agricultural economist who worked at Washington State University and was also a scientific advisor for The Organic Center. As a result of FOIA requests it appears that Dr. Benbrook was willing to collude with organic industry interests to produce research predetermined to question the safety of genetically engineered crops.  This is exactly the kind of smoking gun USRTK was hoping for when they started this mess but now they find it pointed in their direction.

The USRTK requests did find a rather tenuous link to the agricultural biotech industry. Dr. Kevin Folta works for the University of Florida and chairs the Horticultural Sciences Department. It turns out that among the donations the university received to help fund a science outreach program run by Dr. Folta, there was a donation from Monsanto. That is it, no research discussions, or even a hint of collusion or any kind of wrong doing.  In the end the donation was removed from the outreach program and given to charity. Dr. Folta has now gone so far as to call for an unprecedented level of transparency well beyond what is legally required.

Finally, there are the recent results from a honey and a vaccine study.

The honey industry helped fund a study on the effects of honey versus high fructose corn syrup in the belief that their product was safer.  From The Washington Post Wonkblog:

“So you might think that honey is better for you. But a study published this month compared the health effects of honey and the processed sweetener and found no significant differences.”

“The effects were essentially the same,” said Susan K. Raatz, a research nutritionist at the USDA who conducted the study with two colleagues.”

” Researchers at the USDA decided to put that belief to the test. The honey industry, likely hoping that that honey’s suspected health benefits might be proven, helped fund the effort.”

The anti-vaccine group SafeMinds funded a study that also did not go as they hoped. From Newsweek:

“Between 2003 and 2013, SafeMinds provided scientists from the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, the University of Washington, the Johnson Center for Child Health & Development and other research institutions with approximately $250,000 to conduct a long-term investigation evaluating behavioral and brain changes of baby rhesus macaques that were administered a standard course of childhood vaccines.”

“The latest paper in the multiyear project was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, the researchers concluded that vaccines did not cause any brain or behavioral changes in the primates. “

What do these examples tell us? They reveal that scientists are like everyone else. Most of them are ethical and perform their jobs to the best of their ability.  Some let ideology trump good sense but they are the minority, at least in my view.

Most importantly it tells us that funding sources and industry ties should all be secondary to the work.  As the scientists working on the vaccine and honey studies show, funding is irrelevant to performing good science.  In addition I don’t believe that Dr. Folta’s work has received any serious criticisms, at least I couldn’t find any.  As for Dr. Benbrook his work has found its share of criticism.

There is no need to keep sifting through people’s correspondence for ethical lapses.  Let their work speak for them.  But I am a realist, you cannot unring a bell.

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