Silencing Public Scientists

posted in: Commentary | 26

folta-badassLast week I received a FOIA request that all of my emails bearing certain terms were going to be obtained and turned over to an activist group.  US-RTK, a San Francisco-based activist group, namely Gary Ruskin, wanted to know my ties to Big Ag and their PR arm.

The first thing I did was pick up a phone, call Gary Ruskin, and say, “What can I tell you?”

We spoke for 10 minutes, he seems like a decent guy, but what’s the deal with assuming that I’m guilty of something before even talking?  I’m not one to do things the hard way, the expensive way.  I’m glad to talk openly about anything.

Those closer to the situation tell me I’m naive, and that US-RTK wants nothing more than to see me removed from the discussion on ag biotech.  In their estimation, US-RTK does not just want truth, they want words.  They want emails.  It is not about a scientists and what he or she does– it is how they can make public records into something they are not.

This is an expensive fishing trip to harm public science.

The bottom line is that my university operates under the Sunshine Law.  Emails are public information, just like my funding, my salary, my cholesterol levels, and everything else about me.

Still, there are privacy concerns, not by me, but by the university. Turning over student information, proprietary information or medical info could get them in a lot of hot water.

So, for to meet this request, my university has to pull all of my emails after 2012 and have legal types go through them, one-by-one, to make sure nothing they turn over has sensitive information. It is going to cost a fortune.

Why do we have such Sunshine Laws?  They actually serve a good purpose, allowing mechanisms of transparency to find information quickly in the event of some malfeasance by public employees.  That’s helpful.

But when an activist with a mission sees a public scientist effectively talking about science, and they need to shut up that scientist, the FOIA is an easy way to do it.  It works for several reasons.

  • First, many faculty will not want to endure this level of personal invasion.  We know our emails are open property, so why piss anyone off?  If they are like me they are too busy to have secret email addresses and careful re-reading of correspondence for potential alternative interpretations.  If you don’t push the envelope and simply do the job, middle of the road, nobody’s too upset.
  • Second, it is enormously expensive.  Universities have funds set aside for such things, but in the days of lean budgets, it is unfortunate that tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars have to go to malicious nuisance requests.  These are not investigating specific impropriety, they are looking for something to cause harm to reputations of public scientists.  It is a taxpayer-funded fishing trip for a “gotcha”, nothing more. 
  • Third, it discourages faculty from engaging, especially young faculty that are trying to navigate the Tenure and Promotion process.
  • Fourth, they can use words out of context to harm the reputations of scientists. Just look at Climate-Gate.

The threat of being under the microscope scares people to death, not because of what they have done, but because of what those running the microscope want to find, and what they will do with any information once obtained.  Words out of context, a sentence misinterpreted, Climate Gate 101. They can’t be trusted.  These are malicious intents aimed squarely at scientists that dare to teach and communicate peer-reviewed science.

ketchum
Here’s an email I sent to someone today at Ketchum today about the Atlantic article on the Food Babe. Ketchum is one of the companies where US-RTK seized my correspondences. They’ll get this one too, so I gave Gary Ruskin something to read.

So what next?  I’m fortunate to not be afraid of this.  I stand by everything I have written.  I’ve never received a penny for an answer on GMO Answers, or even coaching on what to say. Those are my words.  I own them and I always will.

Somehow I’ll be portrayed negatively and they’ll use my words against me.  Yes, I speak my mind, no, I don’t think of other interpretations.  No, I don’t care either.  I have a job to do that needs to be done, and the minute I’m wasting time re-thinking about how some goof with an axe to grind against Monsanto is going to use my language to harm me… I’m done.  That’s not what I was hired to do.

I’m also fortunate to have a university administration that will back me, that sees this as an assault on academic freedom and an abuse of an important transparency system.
I’m just a damn teacher that wanted to stay in the public sector. I still go to kid’s classrooms, still mentor students, still answer one hour of emails a day from folks that just want to know about food technology.  That’s what they will find.

I’ve offered US-RTK to discuss things openly and freely, but they don’t want that.  No problem. This will backfire on them.  Schools are broke, he’s costing them money.

Scientists are hanging on by threads and he’s costing them time and trying to harm reputations.  Anyone that needs to sift through my private emails to achieve their political ends might just check to see what happened to the Climate Gate folks.
Those that stole the emails came off looking horrible.

Michael Mann and the others only gained credibility and got stronger.
The earth still got warmer.

The science didn’t change, just because activists didn’t like it.

Total backfire.  And the meaner this one gets, the harder it will backfire too.

I have to run, I have to work on a talk for a huge audience tomorrow, on biotech and science communication.  Damn right the FOIA request will be in the first slides.  That letter is how you know you are being effective.

Editor’s note: originally published at Illumination.

Follow Kevin Folta:

Kevin is a public scientist that enjoys illuminating hot-button scientific issues for non-scientists using an evidence-based approach. Kevin is always uncomfortable referring to himself in the third person.