Silencing Public Scientists

Written by Kevin Folta

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.

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.

Written by Guest Expert

Kevin Folta has studied biology and agricultural biotechnology for over thirty years. His research examines the role of light in controlling plant traits, especially those relevant to agriculture. His group is known for using innovative genomics approaches to identify genes associated with fruit quality, especially flavors and aromas.


  1. They’re activists, so therefore, it’s guilty until proven innocent and they set the bar very high on what they consider proof.
    There are people who criticize scientists who aren’t more forthcoming in addressing the public about scientific advances who will remain oddly silent about this.

  2. Despite being asked by Kevin Folta what information he wanted, Gary Ruskin has come out with a press release in answer to Kevin Folta going public
    It is a strange release full of conspiracy theories. In it Ruskin accuses Folta of “Repeating industry talking points”. This is highly ironic given Ruskin’s release is full of talking points common in the anti-GM camp of anyone who says anything positive about biotechnology must have been paid off by industry.
    I always find this particular argument really odd. Surely the way to determine the potential for corrupt messaging is to determine whether what is said is accurate. If it is inaccurate, then it is useful to ask whether the information is inaccurate and who might be being paid off. So given much of what Ruskin claims is inaccurate, I want to know who is paying him to write this.

  3. Hey man, I need your cholesterol levels for the last 50 years. Never mind if you’re only 45, I still need them for 50. I’m goin’ fishin’. Never mind that we’re going to troll for largemouth bass* with plastic lures, I still need your cholesterol levels. Have your lawyers start going through those emails and records right away, I have a point to prove. I just KNOW you’re in cahoots with Big Cholesterol. The troof must me known!
    al the fisherman
    *the noblest of north American freshwater game fish

  4. Wow. I looked at the “Open Letter.” It’s full of massive accusations and bad logic, quite hateful. I would not want to have any sort of discussion with that guy: he is obviously not interested in such. Nor would I want to allow him access to anything I said that was non-public; misrepresentation (quote-mining) is sure to follow.
    For the folks he’s inevitably going to be doing that to, you can count on my support! From the tone of this screed, I suspect he will be his own worst enemy by going off the deep end with lots of scurrilous and inconsistent and satisfyingly easily-disproved accusations; only tea-party types won’t lose their respect for him.

  5. And curiously, Ruskin is repeating organic industry talking points. I’m shocked, of course… But it is possible that one’s statement’s are unlinked. If we could see Ruskin’s emails, I’m sure it would clear everything up.

  6. An interesting, albeit disingenuous, column. As the author knows, his cholesterol is not a public record, nor can it be given HIPPA privacy laws. And by “legal types” going through his emails “one by one”, he means there is a computer program they’ll be put through which will search them in a matter of seconds.

  7. MB, I think you are reading the phrase about cholesterol too literally.
    If you can point to a program that removes all confidential information in a matter of seconds, I would like to see it.

  8. I am a bit confused. Ruskin disapprovingly notes that Ketchum also represents Russia and Vladimir Putin in his press release (or blog post). Yet Putin has banned GMO imports and Ruskin praises him for it. Does Ruskin think Putin is a good bad or a bad guy? And isn’t Ketchum a pretty crumby pro-GMO PR firm if Russia banned GMOs as a result of their representation? I can’t tell who Ruskin is mad at. “Teh DNA” maybe?
    All his talk of espionage and Russians, by a guy named Ruskin no less, has my head spinning.

  9. Crap is this at all related to story I just got from AAAS? “Agricultural researchers rattled by demands for documents
    Keith Kloor
    The fierce public relations war over genetically modified (GM) food has a new front. A nonprofit group opposed to GM products late last month filed a flurry of freedom of information requests 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 public relations 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. The group, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) of Oakland, California, says it targeted only researchers who have written articles posted on GMO Answers, a website backed by food and biotechnology firms, and work in states with laws that require public institutions to share many internal documents on request. USRTK is interested in documenting links between universities and business and is “especially looking to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry,” says Executive Director Gary Ruskin.”

  10. I worked for a number of years as a governmental scientist in the U.K. which has a FOI act and a member of the public would also have been able to ask for my e-mails or other kind of data regarding my research. However, in the institute would have had the possibility to charge a reasonable fee for such a request, depending on the amount of work it would cost to fullfill it. You want a piece of information that I can extract in an hour? Free of charge. You want all raw climate data of the U.K. from the last 20 years, which would require a team of scientists months to extract and assemble? You would be charged probably thousands of pounds. This way, people think twice to abuse a generally good system and the burden of this legal requirement would not be carried by the taxpayer alone. In Kevin Folta´s case for example, I think the costs of the lawyers checking the e-mails before release would be justified.
    The USA is far ahead of Britain in some ways of protecting individuals and organisations from frivolous legal demands, e.g. through anti-SLAPP laws, so I wonder why there doesn´t seem to be a kind of protection from this kind of attack?

  11. Florida’s Open Records Law allows for the recovery of fees for staff time and copying/printing charges. The decision to charge these fees are at the discretion of the requested agency.

  12. Turn the tables on him Kevin.
    Request a copy of every email he has sent or received on the subject of GMOs in the last 5 years. Make it clear that you understand that (unlike for his request) the law does not compel him to do so but that in the name of fairness, honesty and transparency you would be grateful for his co-operation.

  13. There isn’t a program that “removes all confidential information in a matter of seconds.” There are multiple programs that sort the electronic data by extracted keywords in less than a second. Then the “legal types” can review for privilege. I’m not sure what is so confidential. Reminds me of the tobacco industry hiring the researchers through lawyers so they could cloak it in privilege.

  14. I’m not sure what is so confidential.”

    Kevin already spelled this out.

    Turning over student information, proprietary information or medical info could get them in a lot of hot water.

    One assumes that as well as the textual content of emails one would also have to go through any electronic documents attached – excel files, pdfs, powerpoints etc etc etc.
    Possibly one could amass a set of IT tools to go through emails and scan for potential problems, but doing so, troubleshooting it, verifying it etc etc would likely cost more and take more time than just doing it for a one off request like this. I’d wager that universities certainly don’t already have such infrastructure in place even if it were possible (I’d also wager that such a system isn’t at all available)

  15. There are no shortage of e-discovery tools that review the docs, the metadata and their attachments. Google it; it’s an incredible industry. If there are legitimate claims of confidentiality, then they can be made, Almost all university legal departments have dealt with this countless times. Your wager can be paid in the form of an IPA.

  16. It looks like Gary Ruskin is wrongly taking Mischa Popoff – who speaks for no one but himself (and has been banned from our own site for trolling and harassment) – as representing the whole field. This is a case-in-point of how Ruskin twists the words of others.

  17. I think that’s a great idea. It bothers me that public monies will be wasted in this effort of defending academics and public institutions. All the money going into schools from biotech is open knowledge. You have to look a little bit, but it’s there. UC Davis is notorious for its financial connections to Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, etc. This is just the way things are now. It would be nice to shift the economy back to a better balance of private/public – but that doesn’t happen by harassing professors.

  18. Wow, this post reads totally different now that we know the FOIA Request has revealed he accepted $25,000 from Monsanto for just saying stuff they liked.

  19. Sure, here is an article about it from insidehighered:
    I don’t know if that is considered an untrustworthy website or not but there are several other articles and posts about it if you search Google and Kevin is in the comment section at that website discussing the matter. He is also commenting on it with his twitter account:
    And, as you can imagine, it’s being discussed many other places as well. But not here curiously.

  20. I’m glad you took the time to include the link to Kevin’s site, due diligence looking at all sides is important before coming to a conclusion. I hope then you also went to and read the blog entry he linked to, it explained quite a bit:
    The reason it isn’t discussed here is it looks like it was much ado about nothing or at least not what others try to make it out to be. Looks like the deal actually was that Monsanto, along with many others, gave to a science literacy workshop program he is part of (heads?). The funds just go to covering costs of travel, food, space rent I imagine, etc. for those putting it on, not salary. There is no salary. There is no hawking of monstano products, not even any defending of GMOs necessarily.
    As expected, those doing the FIOA requests were looking for anything to jump on and manufacture a climategate style hit piece out of. Keep in mind that, compared to what could be possible, donating to an unrelated science education program is fairly benign. In fact it’s almost just exactly what you’d expect to see if Monsanto just felt that most fundamental opposition to biotech was simply a result of inadequate science education in America today. It fits far more easily with that narrative than the one anti-GMO people want to paint.
    If they truly were attempting to buy mouthpieces and corrupt science you would see what we see in the small dissent of those about climate change -that most all the hold outs and big speakers are held on 400,000 dollar a year retainers from oil companies (a man from Princeton specifically comes to mind even though his name escapes me). We’ve seen none of that in regards to gmos though, this doesn’t even come anywhere close. If it was anymore benign it would be offering to pay for gas for driving to inner-city school programs. The only difference is science education does effect what people think about biotech. An informed mind has more options about what to think, knowledge expands.
    That’s probably why it wasn’t mentioned here, why give any more time and light to a deliberate maligning of the facts? Science tells us that engaging with myths and untruths often does more harm than good, often propagates them more. It’s hard to do it properly, so it’s tempting not to do it at all. Let ignorance die of it’s own accord.

  21. Your assertion that this matter shouldn’t be discussed here seems odd given that it is not only relevant to the topic of the post, but actually IS about the topic of the post.
    Besides, I think they will be discussing it here at biofortified, I’m sure they are just taking the time to put together a thoughtful post about it. They’ve never been known to shy away from an attack on science.
    Although I’m sure no one here will agree, I do see how it could be perceived as unseemly that his outreach program was funded by the companies that he repeatedly claimed to not have received a dime from. He is now qualifying that statement by saying that he was only talking about research, not the outreach work he does, but that’s a distinction that should have been made upfront. If for no other reason than to avoid this situation.
    Also, an education outreach program that’s goal is to expand the acceptance of new technologies, which is being funded by the entities who stand to gain the most financially from the acceptance of those same technologies is by it’s very nature suspect. So, although I don’t personally believe that Kevin altered his message in accordance with who was funding him, I certainly see how some people might come to that conclusion, especially if they were already given to suspicion on the matter.

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