Professor Kevin Folta of the University of Florida (UF) is a well-known science communicator in the subject of agricultural biotechnology. He is a plant scientist who has researched how plants react to light, and he started blogging about a variety of topics in 2008. Over time, Kevin gained popularity as a speaker on biotechnology. He launched a podcast called Talking Biotech in 2015. In 2016, the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) selected Kevin to receive a Borlaug CAST Communication Award.
We, Karl Haro von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar, co-founders of Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI), respected Kevin so much that we invited him to become a member of our Board of Directors in 2015, which he graciously accepted. We had already begun to collaborate with him in 2014 when Karl invited Kevin to serve as a co-PI on the GMO Corn Experiment, a crowd-funded citizen science experiment run by BFI to test a popular claim about GMOs. Sadly, the time has come for BFI and its related projects to sever all ties with Kevin Folta.
Over the years, Kevin has repeatedly denied taking funding from industry. Following articles discussing undisclosed industry funding for Kevin’s outreach, Karl advised Kevin on multiple occasions to be more forthright with his disclosures of potential conflicts of interest (COI), and we expected that he would follow through with his promises of transparency. Kevin has since been open about who has donated, but it is not clear how donated funds are spent. He promised to update a spreadsheet of his outreach activities bimonthly (later changed to quarterly), but as of today he is over a year late: the last entry was 5 August 2017.
There were recent allegations, which we initially did not believe, that Kevin was being paid as a consultant by Bayer. This would present a conflict of interest for his public outreach work, including his involvement with BFI. Karl asked Kevin about this issue via email, and Kevin denied having a COI: “I was not working for Bayer.” We suspected he was withholding information, so Anastasia submitted an anonymous records request to UF. She submitted the request anonymously because Kevin has already shown his willingness to go on the offense, most notably in a lawsuit against The New York Times.
Anastasia’s initial request was for “All records to, from, and about Kevin Folta regarding all financial disclosures, disclosures of outside activities, and conflicts of interest, including the dates that they were disclosed.” UF asked for clarification, so Anastasia clarified, “Please provide copies of all “Disclosure of Outside Activities and Financial Interests” forms for Kevin Folta.” This was the only records request that either of us made, and it was fulfilled at the end of July.
Kevin Folta consulted for a law firm working for Bayer
The records produced by UF show that Kevin disclosed twice to UF (11 May 2017 and 10 April 2018) that he was serving as a consultant and expert witness for law firm Clifford Chance, in an arbitration between Bayer Crop Science and Aventis Pharma. Clifford Chance advises and represents Bayer (e.g., 1, 2, 3). Kevin writes that he was to be paid $600/hour for approximately 120 hours of work.
In his disclosure forms, Kevin both declares that this is consulting and says that it is not. Since submitting the first disclosure form, Kevin has declared publicly and privately that the work was not consulting, and that he has never profited from working with industry (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4).
Even though he disclosed to UF in May 2017, Kevin’s UF webpage stated on 2 February 2018: “Consulting To date, Folta has declined opportunities for paid consulting and has performed such work at no charge as part of his job”. Kevin’s lab funding page still states that he has done no paid consulting, but has since added: “Expert Witness — In May 2018 Folta provided expertise in analysis of data for a law firm. The work was done off of university hours, on approved vacation time, and is not related to his job duties or research at the University of Florida. He was compensated for his time.” This may seem like public disclosure, but the public cannot evaluate a potential COI when no information is provided about the parties involved or the type of work conducted.
The distinction between consulting and being an expert witness, or of working for a law firm rather than for the company they represent are merely semantics. Whether it is called “consulting” or not, or whether working for Bayer or Bayer’s legal representatives, it is still a significant conflict of interest that should have been disclosed.
Conflicts of interest matter
As stated in the Biofortified Blog post, Credibility is our currency: “A COI is a situation in which a person has multiple competing interests, financial or other, that have the potential to compromise or bias their judgment or objectivity. COIs exist whether or not decisions are affected. COIs merely recognize the potential for wrongdoing based on conflicting motivations.”
Professional relationships with industry, financial or otherwise, can provide value to society. Every professional has the right to take on these additional responsibilities, in accordance with the ethics and disclosure policies of their employer and other organizations they work with. Activities such as consulting and serving as an expert witness can provide important experience to scientists and needed information for industry. However, these matters must be fully disclosed to their institutions, organizations, and research teams to safeguard the integrity of their work. Further, when scientists take on a strong public-facing role, disclosure becomes even more important to maintaining the public’s trust.
Science communication needs more support from all sources, including industry. However, science communication requires both respect and trust, and conflicts of interest decrease trust. Increased transparency is needed all around.
Kevin continues to jeopardize science communication efforts with his undisclosed COI. Many projects could be impacted, including the GMO Corn Experiment, the Talking Biotech podcast, a newly-awarded USDA grant to study consumers’ attitudes of biotechnology, The Plant Cell journal where Kevin serves as a features editor, and many others. We encourage Kevin to acknowledge the potential COI on his various projects as appropriate, and issue an apology to colleagues and fans who he misled.
Biology Fortified moving forward
Consulting on this arbitration represents a conflict with BFI’s writing and reporting on issues related to biotechnology, and should have been disclosed. The consultation work involved issues related to “contamination” through cross-pollination, a topic that we periodically write about. We have reviewed all correspondence with Kevin during this period to ensure he did not provide any input or advice that was related to his outside work or the parties involved. The GMO Corn Experiment was the only matter that was related since it involved a product developed by Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer.
We asked Kevin to step down from the BFI Board in March of 2018 due to his lack of time to work on BFI-related projects, and he did so on April 2nd. Kevin has also been removed from the GMO Corn Experiment, and we will re-do any work that he was involved with to avoid any potential conflict of interest, whether real or perceived.
An update about the GMO Corn Experiment has been posted separately. Biology Fortified is currently seeking prospective board members who exemplify the kind of ethical leadership that the scientific community and the public need. Ideal board members would be willing and able to help us expand our activities in providing scientific expertise, training future science communicators, and developing resources on issues in food and agriculture.
Since our site was first launched in October 2008, we’ve been driven by our passion for science, our desire to help the public understand biotechnology, and a curiosity to learn about the far-reaching impacts of our field. We recognize that our chosen field also at times has political implications, which means that we and other scientists who speak out on this subject have an obligation to be extra transparent. The next generation of scientists and science communicators need to know how to form appropriate professional relationships with industry and other interested parties so their work can be well-received and contribute to the public good. We will continue to do our part to make this community stronger.
What will you do to help make science communication more transparent, more effective, more resilient? Consider joining us as an author, volunteer, or donor to help us continue our mission.
Text from the Disclosure Forms
Kevin submitted the first disclosure form on 11 May 2017, with the description of work stating:
“I will serve as a consultant in an arbitration hearing in Geneva, Switzerland. Two large companies are in dispute over a genetic contamination incidents that happened years ago, leading to substantial losses. My role will be to provide scientific evaluation of evidence that helps define a timeline of the contamination and feasibility of mechanisms. The work is fascinating as it has so far been of great value to learn how companies deal with these kinds of issues around intellectual property. Thus far I have only been contacted by Clifford Chance law firm, and I spoke with one of the other experts in the arbitration. I am a good fit for this job.”
In an attached letter to UF dated 11 May 2017, Kevin writes:
“I have been requested to serve as a compensated expert in an arbitration hearing between two parties. This work is not formally consultation work, it is more work as a professional witness, although there is no trial. The work is beyond my normal job at the University of Florida. My services have been requested by Clifford Chance, a law firm involved in the mediation, and I am uniquely positioned to assess the evidence of cultural and genetic practices of the parties involved to help inform a fair and reasonable decision through arbitration. I have filed the appropriate paperwork for outside work, and guarantee that this will all be performed beyond the normal work time in my jobs as Professor and Chair here at the University of Florida. I’m asking for approval to pursue this work.”
Kevin submitted a second disclosure form on 10 April 2018, with the description of work stating:
“I have been asked to provide expert witness testimony for an upcoming arbitration hearing in May 2018. I have been retained by a law firm to provide this service. The activities benefit me by requiring me to deeply study pollination in a cereal crop, and to think about application of molecular markers in the process of tracking off-target gene flow. These topics may have eventual impacts at UF/IFAS.”
In an attached letter to UF dated 10 April 2018, Kevin writes:
“I have been providing service as a scientific expert in an ongoing arbitration hearing working for the law firm of Clifford Chance. I have performed all work on my own time, or have used vacation time when travel was necessary. The final phase of this hearing will be conducted in Frankfort, Germany, May 14-25, 2018. I will use vacation time to participate. To satisfy part 2(c) of this form, the work is to provide my expert evaluation of evidence in a case between Bayer Cropscience and Aventis Pharma. I am being compensated at $600/hour. The work has no overlap with duties at the University of Florida / IFAS, as stated on the attached form. While Bayer Cropscience sponsors work in my laboratory, that project was initiated long before the consultancy, and the two have no overlap, even remotely. I fully expect to be available, accessible, and engaged with university work for the duration of this “vacation”.”