Harassment of Scientists Threatens Independent Research, Science Journal Warns

Published December 14, 2015

Scientific discourse, traditionally viewed as one of the ways civil society sorts out disputes among some of its best minds, is falling victim to a growing culture of intolerance seeking to silence voices of dissent, concludes an editorial in the October 8 issue of the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology.

The editorial discusses smear campaigns targeting scientists who have spoken out against scaremongering concerning genetically modified (GM) crops. It cites the example of 40 U.S. scientists recently hit with onerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by anti-GM activists.

‘Targeted by Mudslingers’

“These scientists have been targeted because they speak inconvenient truths about biotechnology,” the editorial says. “But whether in GM crops, vaccines and autism, climate science or nuclear power, scientists who speak out need to get used to being targeted by mudslingers; it’s part of the today’s 24/7 world of spin and instant controversies.”

In early 2015, the activist group U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), after pocketing a $47,500 donation from the Organic Consumers Association, submitted FOIA requests to 40 biotechnology scientists, requesting e-mails dating back to 2012, Nature Biotechnology notes. USRTK sought to determine whether the scientists were coordinating their “messaging” with 14 companies, including Dow, Dupont, Monsanto, Syngenta, and other biotech firms and food industry trade associations.

The targeted scientists had all contributed to an industry-backed website called GMOanswers.com or had spoken out against California’s GM food-labeling proposition.

One of the scientists who complied with USRTK’s FOIA request was University of Florida researcher Kevin Folta. USRTK then leaked the e-mails to three journalists, one of whom wrote a front-page story in The New York Times about a $25,000 donation from Monsanto to Folta’s institution. Other journalists posted some of Folta’s e-mails in their blogs.

“In both cases, the reporters cherry-picked sentences from several thousand e-mails, highlighting Folta’s communications with Monsanto, often out of context, to insinuate that he is an industry shill—and presumably unfit to speak to the public,” the editorial pointed out.

Folta says USRTK unfairly attacked his work because of the organization’s close to ties to special interest groups.

“USRTK is one of many activist groups funded heavily by anti-GMO interests that have been trying to silence me for a long time,” said Folta. 

“I teach the science behind genetic engineering, and the last 20 years have shown massive benefits compared to risk,” Folta said. “Since USRTK extracted sentences out of context from my 4,600 pages of e-mail to build a damaging narrative which they fed to the popular press, I’ve endured libelous claims on the Internet labeling me as ‘corrupt’ and a ‘fraud,’ and [I’ve been accused of] ‘taking bribes to lie about science.’

“As a result of this smear campaign, universities have cancelled my talks due to activists’ pressure, and I’ve been forced to take down my blog and podcast that had been receiving 20,000 downloads a month,” said Folta. 

The editorial notes like most academics, Folta regularly communicated with people from both the private and public sectors.

“This is how demagogues and anti-science zealots succeed: they extract a high cost for free speech; they coerce the informed into silence; they create hostile environments that threaten vibrant rare species with extinction,” the editorial said.

Attacks Send a Message

Greg Conko, executive director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says the attacks on biotechnology do not surprise him.

“Plant breeders and other scientists at public universities are supposed to be talking to farmers and private-sector seed companies, so they can learn from people involved in real-world agriculture and their research can benefit farming and food production,” Conko said. “Anti-biotechnology activists know that. And they know if they cast a wide enough net, they will inevitably find a few out-of-context statements that make those communications appear suspicious.

“The activists want to send a message to public-sector researchers: If they cooperate with private-sector entities, the researchers will be targeted and punished for the ‘sin’ of not hating the private sector,” Conko said.

“We need scientists, science enthusiasts, farmers, industry, and politicians to step up to defend science in the important area [of] biotechnology,” said Folta. “We have a planet to feed, [an] environment to protect, and farmers that want new technology. We need to deliver that.” 

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.

Internet Info

“Standing up for science,” Nature Biotechnology, October 2015: https://heartland.org/policy-documents/standing-science