Monday, April 23, 2018
Perspective

Perspective: Records requests hijack scientists' time

There are so many things I'd prefer to spend money on than taxpayer-funded witch hunts. Like the search to alleviate human suffering rooted in starvation and malnutrition, for example.

Yet the University of Florida sometimes must pay attention to such seemingly perverse priorities. It's not because some of our scientists work to harness technology as a way to feed the world. It's because they try to explain the benefits of that technology to the world outside academia.

Kevin Folta, a plant biologist with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has become the target of multiple intrusive public records requests, including from "Food Babe" Vani Hari, after he answered questions on a corporate-funded website called GMOanswers.com about the use of molecular science to improve crops.

What we've previously learned from episodes such as Climategate is that scientists' emails can be cherry-picked and used out of context to confuse the public about issues around which there is solid scientific consensus. In Folta's case, the emails are being used to unfairly paint a public servant in science as a corporate stooge. U.S. Right to Know, the anti-GMO activist group that obtained the records, has also driven the narrative of their interpretation.

It's gone all the way to the front page of the Sunday New York Times, which unfairly characterized Folta's relationship with Monsanto. The newspaper presents a picture of corporations enlisting university faculty as their lobbyists. In reality, Monsanto donated $25,000 to the University of Florida, not to Folta, to cover travel expenses for his volunteer work speaking about the science of agricultural biotechnology.

Yet for this, Folta is suffering attacks on his reputation. The implication is that ties to industry discredit a scientist's work.

But this is the way the land-grant university system is supposed to work. Part of our mission is to partner with others — be they corporations, nonprofits, or government agencies — to discover, test and commercialize inventions. It's also our mission to share science and innovation broadly with the public.

As a publicly funded university, we value transparency. As a result of the activists' request, we released in writing what Folta has consistently disclosed in his talks around the nation — that Monsanto helped fund his outreach program.

We believe the attacks to be unjustified, but we moved the money from Folta's university expense account to a campus food pantry. Our ability to continue engaging in credible science is more valuable than any travel money a company could provide to us.

To put the travel money into context, Folta is currently working under a $500,000 federal grant to research how light can be used as a nonchemical means to improve shelf life in crops such as strawberries. What he learns could increase Florida farmers' earnings and improve public health if nutritious foods are more available and attractive.

The expense and energy that goes into responding to paper chases is aggravating, but much more concerning is the prospect that other Kevin Foltas of the scientific community are sitting silent because they do not want to be subjected to such harassment.

Joy Rumble, an assistant professor of agricultural communication at UF/IFAS (which I head), told the audience at a campus biotechnology literacy day organized by Folta that this phenomenon is known as the spiral of silence.

People tend to not publicly share their beliefs if they feel they're in the minority, the theory goes, for fear of isolation or even reprisals. That silence, in turn, feeds greater fear among dissenters as the status quo dominates the public discussion.

In a society in which the might of a megaphone too often trumps the power of ideas, that can mean truth loses. It's not an abstract concept to Rumble. She, too, answered a question or two on GMOanswers.com. She, too, was targeted by a public records request, prompting us to once again summon the IT department and the legal office.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group long recognized for its hard skeptical stance on agricultural biotechnology, goes so far as to put the label "bullying" on the kinds of public records requests faced by Folta and Rumble.

In "Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers," the organization decries the use of broad records requests that can hijack researchers' time, divert university money and chill researchers' interest in communicating with the public they serve.

So when Folta gets death threats, as he did after a recent visit to Hawaii to talk about the science of GMOs, when he's dogged by Internet trolls who append misinformation to his commentary on websites, when we have to go on a paper chase for activists looking for nonexisting evidence of a purchased point of view, that's more than a nuisance.

It contributes to the locking in our UF labs of potential solutions to worldwide problems. It slows the adoption of technologies that can improve lives. A Pew Research Center survey released early this year found that 88 percent of scientists say GMO foods are safe, while only 37 percent of the general public says so. That's a huge gap, and Folta is trying to bridge it — for farmers, for the needy, for the environment and for consumers.

Anyone who cares about the future of food needs to speak up. Share the message that public policy on biotechnology must be based on science, not sentience. Only then can we reverse the spiral of silence, allow reason and data to dominate the discussion, and unlock the labs to give us a shot at sustainably feeding a population that increases while our resources don't.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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