Standing up for transparency: A letter to Nature Biotechnology
To the Editor:
I am writing to you as co-director of the consumer group US Right to Know (USRTK). Your editorial in the October issue entitled “Standing up for science” contained many indefensible statements. It falsely accused us of a “smear campaign” in investigating the food and agrichemical industries, their public relations firms and front groups, and the professors who speak for them.
Our aim is to expose the ties between the food and agrichemical industries and those who assist in their public relations efforts. The documents we obtained show that University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta accepted a $25,000 unrestricted grant from Monsanto (St. Louis). In accepting the grant, he promised Monsanto “a solid return on the investment.” Just a couple weeks later, he publicly claimed no association with Monsanto, and repeatedly denied ties to Monsanto. Although the grant was paid to the University of Florida Foundation, Monsanto's grant letter is addressed to Folta and specifically states that the funds could be used “at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects.” The documents show that Folta's proposal to Monsanto was crafted to evade disclosure and conflict-of-interest reporting. As Folta notes in his proposal, the purpose was “to eliminate the potential concern of the funding organization influencing the messaging,” by placing the funds into an account that is “not publicly noted.”
Just because it is legal to lie and hide corporate contributions doesn't make it ethical. At one point, Folta even wrote to a Monsanto executive, “I'm glad to sign on to whatever you like, or write whatever you like.” This is not a shining example of integrity in science.
Your editorial neglects to mention that Folta used text that was ghostwritten by the public relations firm Ketchum (New York) for the website GMO Answers (https://gmoanswers.com/), and—incredibly—in a recent interview he defended this as an acceptable practice for scientists (http://www.buzzfeed.com/brookeborel/when-scientists-email-monsanto).
For the record, USRTK is not an anti-GMO group. We are a consumer group. We believe genetic engineering of crops may someday have benefits; however, it should proceed only with full transparency, as well as stringent health and environmental testing and safeguards.
We are working for transparency, accountability, the integrity of science and public institutions, and to improve our nation's food system. We are not out to 'get anyone'. Folta's main complaint is that his e-mails were cherry-picked; however, unlike WikiLeaks, we chose not to post thousands of pages of documents obtained through the US Freedom of Information Act exactly because they contain personal e-mails and other material that are not relevant to our investigation. We do release to journalists, or in some cases directly to the public, specific newsworthy documents about food and agrichemical industry PR and lobbying tactics that highlight what they do not want consumers to know about our food.
But a larger issue looms beyond the specifics of Folta's relationship with Monsanto; the incident highlights a wider problem in the systems we have for assuring transparency concerning disclosure of financial interests of academic scientists. Although drug and medical device manufacturers are required under the Physician Payments Sunshine Act to disclose payments to doctors and teaching hospitals, at this time, there is no similar requirement for food or agrichemical companies. USRTK believes there should be.
Collaboration between industry and academia can be beneficial as well as problematic; transparency must be the guiding principle for such relationships. Scientific journals, such as Nature Biotechnology, have an important role to play in advocating for transparency in funding, lobbying and public relations conducted by university scientists. We hope to hear more from your team on that topic.
We want to encourage scientists to communicate with the public to create a thriving science-based society. The problem comes when such communication is reduced to misleading PR talking points to promote commercial products and corporate profits.
- Stacy Malkan