by Marion Nestle
Sep 8 2015

Should scientists with financial ties to Monsanto be subject to FOIA requests?

Sunday’s New York Times story on academic conflicts of interest focused on scientists with financial ties to Monsanto.  The ties were revealed by open-records requests for e-mails and other information.

The Times was not the only one to make these requests.  U.S. Right to Know, a group devoted to investigating Big Food and its front groups had already done so.  U.S. Right to Know is funded primarily by the Organic Consumers Association, a national grassroots network advocating for organics, sustainability, and food safety—but against GMOs.

U.S. Right to Know rightfully takes credit for establishing the basis of the Times’ story.  It sent open-records requests to scientists working for public institutions who seemed likely to have financial ties to Monsanto.  Bingo.  Some of the e-mails revealed such ties.*

But should government-funded scientists be subjected to open records requests?  Couldn’t these requests amount to open season on academics—a modern-day version of witchhunts?  This question is now under active debate (and see comments on my previous post).

While these debates are raging, here is one aspect of this story that the New York Times did not tell.

Earlier this month, Paul Thacker and my NYU colleague Charles Seife, wrote a piece for PLoS [Public Library of Science] Blogs arguing that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests “for personal correspondence are not just appropriate, but crucial to ensuring transparency.”   They argue that the benefits of transparency outweigh the costs.

But transparency laws remain a fundamental tool for monitoring possible scientific misbehavior. And it would be a mistake to believe that scientists should not be subject to a high level of outside scrutiny. So long as scientists receive government money, they are subject to government oversight; so long as their work affects the public, journalists and other watchdogs are simply doing their jobs when they seek out possible misconduct and questionable practices that could threaten the public interest.

Thacker and Seife explain:

Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers…the [Nature] story noted that the researcher has received money from Monsanto to fund expenses incurred while giving educational talks on GMOs.  The article also noted that the PR Firm Ketchum had provided the scientist with canned answers to respond to GMO critics, although it is unclear if he used them [the Times story says he did but now regrets it].

The article does not report that the scientist has repeatedly denied having a financial relationship with Monsanto. The article also does not report on an email titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.

Some readers of PLoS were outraged that this online journal would publish an article supporting open-records requests of scientists (see, for example, this from the American Council on Science and Health).

Here’s where things get interesting.

PLoS responded to the criticism by, of all things, retracting the article.

Seife and Thacker explained their views in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

If the public pays your salary, citizens have the right — within limits — to see what you’re doing. That’s the principle at the core of the federal Freedom of Information Act and of the many similar state freedom of information laws… “snooping” on scientists’ inboxes by journalists, watchdogs and government officials has revealed significant problems that would never have come to light via other means.

That, of course, is the basis of the New York Times’ exposé of Monsanto’s funding of scientists to testify on the company’s behalf to reporters, Congress, and the public.

Bottom line: Because industry-funded science and scientists almost invariably provide data and testimony that favors the sponsors interests, the press and public need to know about sponsorship.

One more comment:  A substantial body of literature exists on industry sponsorship of science, particularly on the effects of pharmaceutical industry funding of medical professionals.  Conflicts-of-interest researchers conclude that such conflicts are generally unconscious, unintentional, and unrecognized by participants.  The remedy is increased government spending for research, an unlikely possibility these days.  This means journalists will be kept busy exposing the many problems that arise when scientists take industry funding.

*The documents collected by the New York Times

Additions:

  • mem_somerville

    Gee, Marion, how come you only linked to 3 of the 4 document sets in the NYT? The Benbrook collection is missing. And that was so super helpful.

    And I have to say, I used to think this was thuggish. But Thacker and Seife have totally turned me around. It was great fun to write the letter to the NEJM this morning about Benbrook & Landrigan’s undisclosed relationships to Just Label It, Stonyfield, and that trip to Walmart. And how they used the banner of the NEJM to influence policy without disclosing any of that.

    It was so cleansing.

  • Maxxy

    How much does big organic pay you?

    You’re obviously a shill for organic companies.

    Disgusting.

  • mem_somerville
  • LT

    Kevin Folta has repeatedly denied that any of the Monsanto funding went to him and was allocated to the university. If that is the case, was he still in the wrong? Do you still consider that type of scenario to be “industry funded”?What are your thoughts on this?

  • A laser dot on my forehead?

    Much of our meaningful research is now conducted by private industry, especially as public funding has diminished over the past quarter century. Likewise, administrators of public funded research centers have become decreasingly literate in science and increasingly absorbed in politics – no longer allies of their own scientists, if not full-blown enemies quite yet. This new spate of forceful snooping amounts to little more than harassment and could well deliver the coup-de-grace to publicly funded research. What talented young scientist would choose to expose himself/herself to relentless demeaning witch hunting tactics from sworn opponents when one could comfortably sequester one’s self in private industry in a well-funded professional research setting isolated from fanatic vandals? Which might the budding Linus Pauling or Thomas Edison logically prefer; well-ordered career success and tidy patent royalties enjoyed in the company of a select group of capable colleagues, or a monotonous series of baseless attacks and insane time-wasting litigious fishing expeditions suffered at the hands a small and disproportionately vocal subset of obsessed individuals whose mental stability is questionable, at best. When science has been driven from the public arena who will zealots FOIL then? Short of illegally hacking corporate computer networks the only publicly information available will be those few carefully worded press releases and a perhaps the occasional U.S. Patent office application. Sort of a modern version of the Dark Ages. Just what the Luddite doctor ordered!

  • David Brown

    Yes, there is a body of evidence that when there are huge conflicts of interest that can bias science related to pharmaceuticals. Does Marion really think that $25k for public education (something that counts for virtually nothing in academic currency) would bias Kevin Folta?

    Does Marion really think that a bit of travel money would bias Bruce Chassy given his career and long record of independent research?

    These guys got a pittance to share what they were already sharing for nothing – the consensus science on genetic engineering.

    There was only one individual in the NY Times story who was completely supported by industry (including personal salary), who has never had an independent research career, and who coordinated all of his work with the industry that paid him: Chuck Benbrook. And yet he isn’t mentioned in this blog post. Hmmm…

  • rub-a-dub

    Why single out Monsanto? Let’s do a deep dive open-records search of anyone and everyone ever associated with SARE grants. Between conflicts of interest, shoddy science, nepotism and rampant waste we will need to recruit a small army of staffers to poke around in it all. Time permitting we could also pry into the affairs of Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Surely they harbor affiliated “researchers” whose past or present indiscretions make them a legitimate target by our new standards. Let’s roll!

    “We can do the Innuendo
    We can dance and sing
    When it’s said and done
    We haven’t told you a thing
    We all know that Crap is King
    Give us dirty laundry”
    ………..lyrics by Don Henley (remember him?)

  • Ian Forrester

    Any scientist who continually lies about the science should be subject to FOIA requests. Far too many of the GMO shills and apologists lie continually. Just look at how many of them claim that there is a “scientific consensus on GMO safety”. That is just a blatant lie.

    Lies have been the MO of these dishonest scientists since the Pusztai affair. Let’s get all their lies out in the open for honest discussion by honest scientists.

  • David Brown

    Yep. Just like those scientists who claim there is a consensus on global climate change. Keep hitting them with FOIA requests.

    How do we know that scientists are lying? How do I know if they are shills or apologists? Because they disagree with my personal opinion.

    **sarcasm off**

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  • closetothetruth

    “If the public pays your salary, citizens have the right — within limits — to see what you’re doing.”

    since we are talking about academics: the public does NOT pay the salaries of professors in the US. at public institutions, today, at most, the States in which they are located pay well under 10% of operating budget. 10%. and *only* from the states. you might have an argument that residents of the state then has a right to see the records (and, by the way, they typically do, via FOIA, but not because of who pays their salary). In a remarkably failure to reflect, the professor who wrote this piece works at NYU, a *private* university. At which the part of “the public” that pays his salary drops to 0.

    does 10% entitle you to 10% of their information? or what percent? what percent of public support means your lives are wide-open for scrutiny by political opponents? The authors of that piece cite the Mann case, bizarrely waving it off as an anomaly, but the temper of the times suggests that more and more will be coming. Note that the University of Virginia, where Mann worked, despite being a public university, receives less than FIVE percent of its operating budget from the state.

    the right wing loves to portray professors as virtual welfare recipients, gorging themselves on the Federal government’s dime, even as they have stripped every dollar of public support out of the public universities that were once moderately well-funded.

    whether or not this argument works, it is not because professor’s salaries are paid by the public. they are not.

    one more point: when Federal dollars are directly used for research funding, which they often are, in which they pay not salaries but direct research costs, FOIA already applies, on top of whatever state legislation exists, so there is no argument required there.

  • Ms Nestle, we were very thorough in responding to each of Mr. Lipton’s inquiries regarding academic funding; and we demonstrated in each case that the funding we provided to the universities was independent of other communications we had with these academics.

    As you know, biotech outreach programs exist at numerous universities nationwide, such as University of California Davis, Iowa State University, University of Illinois, University of Missouri, George Mason University, North Carolina State University, and Michigan State, to name a few. These engagements are important because many audiences want to learn from and ask questions of public sector experts that have experience and have published scientific articles on a range of topics related to GM crop food safety and environmental impacts.

    You can find more info on how we work with academics and universities here: http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/pages/collaborating-with-academics-and-universities.aspx

    Thank you.

  • Eli Rabett

    $25K$ without overhead and strings is a lot of money even for someone who is well funded.

  • David Brown

    The $25k would come with overhead. And no, it isn’t a lot of money for someone who is well funded. Peanuts. Moreover, it was dedicated to science communication – not something that builds careers.

  • Eli Rabett

    There are different rules for non federal funding and given experience the overhead would have been waived or minimal.

    A 25K$ travel budget sure could build careers combining “educational” talks with conference attendance

  • David Brown

    Industry funding is charged full overhead. Clearly this is a world that you don’t understand. A scientist who brings in the kind of resrarch funding Kevin has will have no trouble with conference travel. And you are confusing conference talks with the public education Kevin does. I can assure that as a science with substatial federal funding I find it completely laughable that folks with no knowledge of this world are making a big deal about $25k for public communication.

  • JW Ogden

    Why do write “Monsanto” rather than biotech companies?

  • Shelley McGuire

    Dr. Nestle: I appreciate your perspective as a nutrition colleague. The problem here, as I see it anyway, is that the FOIA laws are being abused to attack, discourage, and silence scientists – and by the way, only ones at public universities. This is not what they were implemented for, and therefore need some serious reconsideration. There must exist a better system to make sure that everyone knows who’s funding what. Actually, many of those safeguards for this are already in place, such as disclosing funding sources and COI in publications and during presentations. Scientists have been very aware of the need for funding disclosure for many years. We now need to educate the public and press as to how research is funded and carried out, and what safeguards we use to manage the COI. This witchhunt needs to stop before its chilling effects on research are realized. By the way, I too have been FOIAed by USRTK. You can read more about my “story” at http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/09/10/anti-gmo-activists-use-foia-to-bully-mother-scientist-nutrition-and-lactation-expert/ and http://www.skepticalob.com/2015/09/do-gary-ruskin-and-zen-honeycutt-care-about-babies.html. The first documents from my FOIA are set to be released to USRTK next week.

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  • Ann Green

    What I find frustrating is the assumption that communication between a company or organization and a scientist presumes biased science. Shouldn’t the science be examined to see if it holds up to scrutiny? The GMO fear mongers have just gone bonkers. Attacking a technique that has the potential to improve many different crops to address many different problems because some companies make profit on some of these crops just seems so short-sighted. Monsanto doesn’t own all GMO ideas.

    What’s the solution to this pervasive distrust of all corporate research? Non-profit supported research? Non-profits are often completely biased. Totally tax-supported research? Not holding my breath for that. For now, we have private funding for organic research, private funding for GMO research, and some public funding for both. Must we discount all independent research that agrees with private research? That would be silly. Let’s look at the science, for Pete’s sake.

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