Editor’s Note: This was a 2017 April Fools post, and the title has been edited to reflect that now that the annual pranking holiday has passed. Read on for commentary about conflicts of interest, and Karl’s experiences in such discussions.
For my professional career, I have been careful about managing conflicts of interest. This is important because when people are looking for information about science, politics, or any topic for that matter, they are wary of hidden agendas, dark money, bias and other factors that can influence what they are reading. My research and graduate education was publicly-funded, and we’ve had a strict policy when it comes to funding for Biology Fortified since the very beginning. It was easy at the beginning to avoid entanglements with the various industries I have written about, but last year it became much more difficult. My wife and I were moving back to California from Wisconsin and I needed a little help getting our home fixed up to sell. I don’t know how the word got around whether it was a friend or colleague, a FOIAed email or a leak from a disgruntled employee, but I need to come clean and do damage control before the reporters start calling my disconnected Madison land-line number. Here it is: Monsanto helped me renovate my kitchen.
I said it, and you read it right. I was in a bind, but before you go judging me I think you might have done the same thing in my place. My wife was already in California, and I was tasked with renovating, packing, cleaning, and arranging the selling of our house. In the dead of winter, I went back to Madison after speaking in New Zealand (courtesy of the New Zealand Skeptics Society, personal trip afterward was self-funded), and had a limited budget to turn a half-fixed fixer-upper into the shiniest house on the block. It was almost exactly one year ago when I had the kitchen all ripped out, while I re-plumbed and re-wired fixtures and appliances and installed new base cabinets. Room by room the house was getting ready, but this one took by far the most work, and I went to bed each night with new nicks and cuts on my hands, knowing that when it was all done I could rejoin my wife in our home state.
I took a break from this insanity at the very end of March to drive down to Nashville, TN to help out at the ASPB booth of the National Science Teacher’s Association conference. It was a lot of fun talking to science teachers, passing out plant biology educational materials, and putting over 100 of our corn experiment kits into their hands as well. It made me think about why I love both science and science communication. Teachers were ecstatic to get free materials, and were drawn to the accessibility of the experiment. Even teachers who weren’t keen on the idea of GMOs walked away as future experiment participants. When I explained how the experiment came together, one teacher said “So you’re funded by Monsanto?” I responded, no, we requested ears of corn for our experiment, which they donated, but we are funded by our readers and supporters. She took a kit, too.
I couldn’t stay for the whole conference, so on April 1st I took my leave of the ASPB group, thanking them both for travel support to make the long drive down and back up, and for dinner at the end of the first night. I left with ideas on how to educate people, some new contacts, and thoughts about how quickly people have become to question agendas, funding, and bias in a knee-jerk fashion. It’s not just the people who are anti-biotech who do this, sometimes people who are stridently pro-biotech automatically assume nefarious funding schemes behind things they disagree with as well. In science, it is proper to declare your own interests and funding sources so people can keep them in mind, but the point is so that you can check these issues at the door and focus on what the methods and results can reveal about the natural world. The debate has gotten so political that the shill accusations have gotten beyond absurd.
While still a graduate student, it has been suggested that I was pulling in a six-figure income from industry (ha! Try USDA grant, and a lowly student stipend), when I went on the radio to talk about GMOs people online said I was professionally-trained in PR (Um, thanks?). When I spoke in Hawaii a few years ago, one of the activists I met with suggested that my (and Kevin Folta’s) looks were part of an industry strategy to placate the locals (I took a bow)! After attending some anti-GMO talks last year in my home state, I was hounded online about how I paid for a $10 entry ticket (really?), never questioning all the industry money that went into the pockets of the people putting on the talks themselves! I was in good company with Neil Patrick Harris who was also pestered by the same person for attending a dinner related to biotechnology. Just last week, we received an accusation of “how much is Monsanto paying you to lie?” along with a veiled threat, sent from the business email of the president of a corporate events service that proudly proclaims how they’ve been hired by Bayer, Novartis, Merck, Genzyme, and a host of Big Pharma companies. So shills accusing others of being shills? Wait until they find out that Bayer is buying Monsanto! (Same team?)
Oh yeah – the kitchen. I keep stalling. So there I was back in Madison with time and funds running short, and a kitchen that was unfinished. Up until this point, If anything I was beholden to the people of the United States, our individual donors at Biology Fortified, and the New Zealand Skeptics Society. And yet, the accusations will fly anyway. The work was taking too long as it was, and my hands were still chapped and bruised. I wasn’t going to be able to finish the kitchen without help (how was I even supposed to hold up the wall cabinets?), so I decided to get help from Monsanto. They donated corn to Biology Fortified’s citizen science experiment, which came in these large, sturdy double-thick cardboard boxes. I walked downstairs, picked up a few of these boxes, brought them up to the kitchen, and grabbed my phone. “I know they will help me finish this so I can get going back to California,” I thought. After changing the soundtrack on my phone from Weird Al and to Remixed Megaman 2 music, I stacked the boxes and shimmied the cabinets up to the ceiling, balancing them on top of the boxes. Just a little nominal lumber to eat up the last 3 inches and I was ready to affix them to the joists! Before long, the wall cabinets were up, and I owed this feat to these corn shipping boxes. That’s how Monsanto helped me renovate my kitchen.
What did you expect? 🙂 You know better than to trust headlines on April Fools.
Without something to hold up those cabinets, I suppose I would have had to buy some tool or hire an extra hand. In this crazy mixed-up political world, someone, somewhere, somehow will bring up “Monsanto helped you get a new kitchen!” as an unreported conflict of interest. So whenever you see someone say “hey those Biofortified Boys are funded by Monsanto” – send them here and they can be an April Fool any time of the year!
Also – be suspicious of ketchup bottles, shower heads, and toilet seats today. It’s a mad, mad world, I tell you!