USRTK wants the Emails of Public Scientists

posted in: News | 19
The logo of USRTK
The logo of USRTK

This is troubling news for academic scientists. An organization called “US Right to Know” has issued at least a dozen legal requests to the home universities of public scientists who have made efforts to educate the public about genetically engineered crops. Using the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state laws, they want access to all of the emails sent to and from the targeted scientists and a list of industry and industry-associated organizations. Claiming to only be interested to “understand the dynamics between the agrichemical industry’s PR efforts, and the public university faculty who sometimes are its public face”, these FOIA requests risk violating academic freedom and having a silencing effect on scientist-communicators who fear becoming political targets. Reminiscent of Climategate, the scientists who have been targeted fear that their correspondence will be twisted for political purposes.

ag letter excerpt
An excerpt of one of the FOIA requests

 

We will report more about this concerning issue as it evolves. Keith Kloor has the story at Science Magazine, and will be updating this post at Collide-A-Scape with additional details as he receives them.

The fierce public relations war over genetically modified (GM) food has a new front. A nonprofit group opposed to GM products filed a flurry of freedom of information requests late last month with at least four U.S. universities, asking administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms. The scientists—many of whom have publicly supported agricultural biotechnologies—are debating how best to respond, and at least one university has already rejected the request.

Continue at Science Magazine.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.

  • Maybe people will be able to recognize what we’ve tried to tell them: the anti-GMO outfits are no different than climate deniers and anti-vaxxers.

    Harassing academic scientists workplaces now. And people wonder why more scientists don’t engage.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    I have already had my say on this disgusting turn of events in 2 other forums, gmo skeptic forum and the original article. To sum it up. I think folks should comply, only for PR reasons. Carefully and thoughtfully to minimize out of context use to mislead.

  • Rickinreallife

    I had heard about this on another forum. This is a disturbing McCarthyesque development, and is an increasingly pervasive means in other politically and socially controversial areas of opening new fronts of character assassination, innuendo, accusation, and can be an affront to academic freedom and inquiry. A lot of innocent people can get hurt in the process.

    There will be those who will say that if researchers at public universities have nothing to hide, they have done nothing illegal or unethical, they should be happy to turn over their e-mails. But whether they have done anything illegal or unethical is irrellivant to the damage to reputations, the chilling of free exchange of information, because those requesting, digesting and interpreting the information do not have to prove actual collaboration in any legal or ethical sense. The fact that an email was exchanged between a faculty at a university and someone at Monsanto is all that the court of public opinion requires to fan the flames of conspiracy.

    Freedom of information is the law and should be complied with. But FOI can be used legitimately as a check on lack of transparency, but it can also be used as just another weapon in the cultural wars for intimidation and witch hunts.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      Rick, I have seen very similar arguments in favor of no further weakening of the 4th amendment. Well done.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      What’s missing here is probable cause. Hence the greater potential for abuse.

      • crazee11

        I think that is a good check. If the request was based upon some reasonable basis to believe that a specific case of some manner of collusion had occurred involving a scientist, that would be one thing. But a broad request based on the premise that scientists routinely collude with industry to produce cooked research or hide risks is a slanderous premise that I do not believe that FOIA was meant to indulge.

      • First Officer

        At least USRTK is honest in that respect. They flat out say they wish to learn of any connections and only imagine they are there.

        On a related note, it has been posted elsewhere that, at least in Florida, the requester can be billed for reasonable and expected costs for complying to such requests.

        • Eric Bjerregaard

          Yes, I believe I remember news stories and court cases about clerks trying to charge ridiculous fees for the copying. I had not remembered that. Thanks.

  • This group is unbelievable. They recently published a 65 page article called ‘Seedy Business’ which was packed with fallacies. I had a little fun debunking it last week – http://iowameetsmaui.com/2015/02/03/a-seedy-business-for-sure/ I found it especially interesting that USRTK has only one major donor, the Organic Consumers Association.

  • Can we in turn also request all of the email and personal correspondence of things like the Institute for Responsible Technology, other pro-organic, anti-GMO institutes or non-profits, and somehow Food Babe? I’d like to see just how transparent THOSE folks are willing to be.

  • Chris Preston

    Charles Benbrook is on the staff of Washington State University. His e-mails might make interesting reading?

    In fact, I think this is a deplorable action. The FOI requests are clearly being made to intimidate rather than to elucidate anything. And I would not condone a request to get access to all of Benbrook’s e-mails.

  • I just found this I wanted to be sure we had for the record:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2014/04/17/va-supreme-court-rules-for-u-va-in-global-warming-foia-case/

    Michael Halpern, a program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which also filed an amicus brief in the case, said that the state Supreme Court “ was right to protect scientists’ ability to pursue tough research questions free from threats or intimidation. Freedom of information laws are meant to keep government accountable, not to enable the harassment of scientists. The court’s decision sends a signal to scientists at public universities that the pursuit of scientific knowledge will be protected in Virginia, no matter how their results might be received. Other Virginia universities and scientists should feel empowered to fight back against these inappropriate requests for private correspondence.”

    • crazee11

      Well done. FOIA abuse is not just an issue as it relates to genetic engineering, its misuse is a concern to any area of scientific inquiry. Folks who are concerned about the misuse of FOIA should apply that principle in all fields, even in defense of scientists who they might disagree with in certain fields, just as we should be very concerned if say an ag chemical trade association were to demand FOIA access to Charles Benbrooks emails. I will be impressed if Mr. Halpem is equally cautious about the potential FOIA abuse to harass scientists working in ge related fields as he was in defense of scientists working in climate topics.

  • Huh. Just saw this come through my twitter feed too: http://blog.ucsusa.org/let-the-engineer-speak-on-scientific-free-speech-and-the-harassment-of-experts-616

    A need for scientific experts in public policy debates

    This chilling effect is problematic for science and for us all. Importantly, scientists don’t give up their first amendment rights at the lab room door. They have a right to speak up and participate in the democratic process. There of course should be rules guiding professional behavior, but such rules by and large shouldn’t cover what scientists do on their personal time.

    We need technical experts like Marohn to speak up when their scientific work suggests a need for policy changes. Engineers, scientists, and other experts are often in the unique position of being able to identify inefficiencies, errors, and shortcomings with our public policies around scientific issues. If those policy decisions could be improved by being better informed by science, I for one want experts like Marohn to speak up. This is how we get better policy outcomes that improve our health, safety, and wellbeing—in the design of our cities and towns as well as a host of other issues.