Kevin Folta complains about article mentioning his Monsanto links – and PLOS retracts it
Earlier this month we reported that the pro-GMO and Roundup-drinking scientist Kevin Folta had taken $25,000 from Monsanto, in spite of repeatedly claiming he received no money at all from the company. Indeed, only two months ago Folta had declared he had “nothing to do with Monsanto”.
But according to an article in the journal Nature, a freedom of information request from the US campaign group US Right to Know, which had resulted in Folta’s emails being turned over to the group, had revealed “his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto, of St Louis, Missouri, and other biotechnology-industry interests.”
Item 2 below is an incisive peer-reviewed article for PLOS (Public Library of Science) by journalists Charles Seife and Paul Thacker, which argued for transparency of scientists’ affairs in order to protect the public interest.
The article so offended Folta that PLOS decided to retract it after, it seems, coming under intense pressure from Folta supporters.
PLOS’s retraction of an article that was about the need for greater transparency in science is widely seen as damaging to PLOS’s reputation. The well known science writer Ed Yong, for instance, describes it as PLOS “re-enacting that scene from Fight Club where Ed Norton repeatedly punches himself in the face.”
Paul Thacker has drawn attention to the fact that that Michael Eisen, a PLOS founder and board member, is a strong opponent of GMO labelling and an active Folta defender. Eisen, who admits alerting PLOS to Folta’s concerns but denies supporting retraction, recently suggested on Twitter that journalists should hand over their emails to see if they've received any suggested talking points from GMO critics.
Despite the retraction, Seife and Thacker’s article can still be read in the web archive here.
In the interests of transparency, we have also posted it below (item 2).
Item 1 below is an article about the retraction by Retraction Watch. It includes the response of Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University who’s written extensively on scientific topics, to PLOS’s disturbing act of censorship.
1. Following criticism, PLOS removes blog defending scrutiny of science
2. The fight over transparency: Round two
1. Following criticism, PLOS removes blog defending scrutiny of science
Retraction Watch, 24 Aug 2015
[links to sources at the URL above]
Community blog PLOS Biologue has pulled a post by journalists Charles Seife and Paul Thacker that argued in favor of public scrutiny of scientists’ behavior (including emails), following heavy criticism, including from a group and scientist mentioned in the post.
Their reasoning: The post was “not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines.”
The original post, published August 13, is no longer available online, but you can read it here. In the piece, Seife and Thacker lament what they call a recent backlash against transparency in science:
“Last June, the New England Journal of Medicine published a series of articles that questioned whether conflict-of-interest policing had gone too far….A less well-covered volte-face comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Like many other advocacy organizations, UCS has long expressed dismay at the distortion of science. Yet within the past year, UCS has begun a campaign to blunt the tools with which the public can investigate claims of scientific malfeasance.
“Earlier this year, the organization released a report in which it decried using open-access requests to ‘bully’ scientists and to ‘disrupt or delay their work.’ The report cited several cases where scientists had arguably been harassed in the name of transparency.”
However, the authors list cases where access to scientists’ emails has revealed information that was “crucial for safeguarding public health.” For instance, in the case of Wei-Hock Soon:
“Those emails revealed not just that Soon failed to disclose conflicts of interest in nearly a dozen papers stemming from some $1.2 million in funding from oil industry and global-warming-denying funding sources, but also that those conflicts went deeper than anyone had suspected: several of Soon’s published papers as well as congressional testimony he prepared – were described as ‘deliverables’ for corporate sponsors.”
Although the tools we use to ensure transparency can be abused, that’s a necessary risk, note Seife and Thacker:
“To be sure, the same mechanisms that watchdogs use to uncover scientific wrongdoing have been abused in the past. Climate scientist Michael Mann, for instance, was subject to invasive and harassing requests for information via freedom of information laws, via judicial-branch powers, and via congressional requests. No doubt they will be abused in the future.
“But transparency laws remain a fundamental tool for monitoring possible scientific misbehavior. And it would be a mistake to believe that scientists should not be subject to a high level of outside scrutiny. So long as scientists receive government money, they are subject to government oversight; so long as their work affects the public, journalists and other watchdogs are simply doing their jobs when they seek out possible misconduct and questionable practices that could threaten the public interest.”
Finally, they note another case in which a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request yielded important information:
“Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers. Written by the same journalist who had reported on the FOIA request previously for Science, the story noted that the researcher has received money from Monsanto to fund expenses incurred while giving educational talks on GMOs. The article also noted that the PR Firm Ketchum had provided the scientist with canned answers to respond to GMO critics, although it is unclear if he used them.
“The article does not report that the scientist has repeatedly denied having a financial relationship with Monsanto. The article also does not report on an email titled ‘CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update’ from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.”
Seife and Thacker presented similar ideas last week in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.
On August 17, the authors added a correction to the PLOS Biologue post, which named the University of Florida researcher as Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences department.
Seife told Retraction Watch why they corrected the post:
“In referring an e-mail written by University of Florida professor Kevin Folta, we had erroneously described a GMO-labeling initiative as being from California when it was, in fact, from Colorado. The footnote also gave the wrong date for the e-mail. Our correction addressed these issues.
“In addition, we knew that Kevin Folta was taking issue with the way we characterized his e-mail, so we wanted to make perfectly clear that we were not asserting that Folta crafted the title of the e-mail; further, we asked PLOS to post the entire e-mail chain so readers could determine for themselves whether our characterization was accurate.
Seife added they named Folta in the correction because he had already revealed himself:
“My recollection is that we named Folta in the correction because he had already identified himself in the comments section on the piece.”
Indeed, Folta had responded online to the article, arguing on Science 2.0 that transparency has become “weaponized” against science:
“In a smear campaign not unlike Climategate, Thacker and Seife make assumptions, bend the truth, or are ignorant of information lacing an email they somehow obtained.
“This email was provided from the activist group targeting me, and it smacks of journalists asking the activists for a little something to satisfy some ideological agenda. Why else would US-RTK furnish these coveted resources?
“In a breach of journalistic ethics, this author team published false and misleading information. While Thacker contacted me about other information regarding this FOIA request, neither author contacted me for clarification about this email prior to this vicious blindsiding.”
At the bottom of the post, Folta explains his response to PLOS, and suggests scientists pause before publishing in one of their journals:
“I contacted PLoS and requested equal space to refute Thacker and Seife’s false statements. PLoS refused to provide equal space. Their representative said, ‘Respond in the comments section’.
“I have published in PLoS journals. I reviewed for PLoS journals. and have a paper in review there now that I’m strongly considering pulling. While PLoS blogs has a disclaimer that they do not control content, they do offer a visible, reputable brand to host this fact-challenged attack on a public scientist.
“Researchers should consider this event when deliberating publication or reviewing with PLoS journals.”
Folta told Retraction Watch he believes Seife and Thacker’s post was a “hit job”:
“The authors, including a journalism professor, never contacted me to learn the proper interpretation of this captured email.
“Clearly, this was a hit job. Connect me to a company and a contentious state issue in a state with significant anti-biotech leanings. A great way to harm a scientist.”
Folta also denied directly receiving money from Monsanto:
“I never received money from them personally. They do not fund my research. I am a full-time researcher.
“Monsanto did make a $25,000 donation to an established science communications program, no strings attached. I teach scientists how to talk to the public. This is exactly what companies should support. Their support is appropriate and I’m grateful for that. It allows me to teach science communication by covering venue costs, travel and lunch for workshop attendees.”
This incident illustrates the larger issues raised in the article, he added:
“Scientists fear that abuse of public records requests is a dangerous practice. We feel that unscrupulous activists with agendas will obtain thousands of our personal emails and then lift the content and skew it to fit their need — to harm the reputation of public scientists. This is EXACTLY what happened here. These two authors obtained my emails from activists and then deliberately distorted the information for their agenda. I was never contacted.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists posted its own response August 14, in which it distinguished between “transparency” and “harassment”:
“Thacker and Seife correctly note that UCS has used disclosure laws to uncover political and corporate interference in science and the organization has also cited the results of many open records investigations. However, the examples they cite focused on open records requests related to government policy decisions, not overreaching requests targeting academic scientists. Thus, their attempt to paint UCS as hypocritical rests on ignoring those important distinctions.
“To be clear, ‘outside scrutiny’ and harassment are two different things. That’s why UCS has also argued that it is in the public interest to protect scientists from harassment campaigns that prevent them from doing their jobs.”
On August 20, PLOS Biology followed up with a longer post, “The Trouble with Transparency:”
“Against a backdrop where research output doubles nearly every decade and concerns over fraud, misconduct and research reliability are on the rise, we at PLOS Biology believe that efforts to boost scientific integrity, literacy and transparency are sorely needed. That’s why when two journalists with a track record for exposing corruption in science came to us with an article outlining the reasons to protect tools to ensure transparency – even though many scientists see the tools as invasive and disruptive — we offered to consider their piece for our blog.
“Nonetheless, we appreciate that some of the parties mentioned in the article took grave offense at the authors’ characterization of their situation. In particular, Dr. Kevin Folta, one of several cases mentioned in the article, has publicly stated some of his issues with the article and the authors’ interpretation. Unfortunately, our processes went wrong and we failed to respond as quickly as we should have to Dr. Folta’s initial message to us. We are reviewing our processes to ensure that a similar failure will not be repeated.
“We continue to believe that this is an important, if highly charged, issue that merits discussion. On Monday we offered Dr. Folta the opportunity to provide his views on conflicts of interest on PLOS Biologue. We invite your comments and are currently approaching others to showcase and present a variety of views and experiences relating to the FOIA, COI disclosures and transparency in scientific research and publishing.”
On Friday, August 21, PLOS removed Seife and Thacker’s post; in its place is a statement:
“PLOS Blogs is, and will continue to be, a forum that allows scientists to debate controversial topics. However, given additional information for further inquiry and analysis, PLOS has determined that the Biologue post that had occupied this page, “The Fight over Transparency: Round Two,” was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines. PLOS has therefore decided to remove the post, while leaving the comments on it intact. We believe that this topic is important and that it should continue to be discussed and debated, including on PLOS blogs and in PLOS research articles.
In an email to PLOS after the post disappeared, Seife (who forwarded the email to us) told PLOS Executive Editor Veronique Kiermer:
“You say that our piece violated the standards of your site for engaging in civilized debate of matters of scientific importance.
“Please explain in what manner we violated those standards?
“We were peer reviewed and were deemed to meet the standards of your publication. We endured several rounds of *post-publication* legal and factual vetting — no doubt, a highly unusual procedure — and responded to all of your queries. When a minor factual error was found, concerning the state in which a proposition was being proposed (and the date of a letter), we immediately notified you and corrected it as appropriate. In short, we have behaved as expected of us. And we stand by our piece.
“Yet not only do you pull our article without consulting us, or even hinting that this was in the works, you also leave critical comments of our piece out there for all to see — silencing us while giving critics full voice. (I’m surprised that your lawyers allowed this, by the way.)
“So, please explain to us how we violated your standards so egregiously that you had to take this dramatic step. And while you’re explaining, could you please go into a bit more detail about the increasing pressure from scientists that you received to remove our article from the site?”
When asked how he felt when he learned his post had been removed by PLOS, Seife told Retraction Watch:
“It’s a mixture of feelings. I’m saddened that PLOS let pressure from scientists and scientific organizations lead to the retraction of our piece without even the courtesy of explaining what was objectionable or, if we were in fact in error in some way, explaining what it was so we would have an opportunity to correct it. I’m annoyed that not only was our point of view expunged from their site, the criticism of our opinion — much of which is inaccurate and inflammatory — is allowed to remain intact, giving an extremely distorted view of what happened. And I’m bemused by the hypocrisy of a number of actors in this drama who claim to be fighting a ‘chilling effect’ on public debate and academic freedom while cheerfully silencing a viewpoint they don’t like.”
Keith Kloor, author of the Nature news article mentioned in the retracted post, told us he also disagreed with the decision to remove the article.
“As much I think the PLOS post is deeply flawed and erroneous, it bothers me that it was retracted. 1) The official explanation is really vague. Not very transparent! 2) I have to wonder if there was intense pressure brought to bear from scientists… I find myself in the odd position of defending the flawed PLOS post from these presumed pressures, in part because I’ve been the subject of similar pressure campaigns. (Of course, I’m only assuming pressure was brought to bear. I have no idea if this was actually the case.)”
Indeed, it was the “community reaction” to the post that made PLOS consider removing it, Kiermer told Retraction Watch:
“The community reaction caused us to reexamine particular assertions made in the piece about individuals and groups. We concluded that some were not consistent at least with the spirit of the guidelines that we apply to all community writing and commenting on PLOS blogs. We want to hold all PLOS blogs to the same standards and after careful consideration we decided it was appropriate to remove the post.”
She also clarified what the publisher meant by saying it “failed” in its response to Folta after the article appeared:
“PLOS received Dr. Folta’s objection on Saturday morning and that information was not passed onto a senior editor in a timely manner. We should have offered Dr. Folta an opportunity to respond faster but it did not happen because of a lapse in our internal communication.”
They kept the comments, she said, because that’s what they did before:
“PLOS simply followed the same protocol for the only other blog post that was removed.”
In 2013, PLOS removed a post that it said “crossed the line” in its criticisms of another writer during a discussion of a conference session on sexual harassment.
2. The fight over transparency: Round two
By Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife
PLOS Biologue, 13 Aug 2015
The backlash against transparency is now underway. The battles being waged are likely to leave their mark over how to perform — and how to interpret — the medical and scientific literature for many years to come.
In the past two decades, it seemed like much of the debate over financial conflicts of interest had quieted. In the wake of several embarrassing scientific debacles where financial conflicts played a prominent role — the death of Jesse Gelsinger,[i] the delayed decision to pull Vioxx and Bextra from the U.S. market,[ii] and the misconduct of Andrew Wakefield,[iii] to name a few — scientists, clinicians, publishers, regulators, and journalists began to beat a steady drumbeat to march research toward transparency.
Top-tier biomedical journals now require explicit disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, as well as any involvement of outside influences in the design, conduct, or writing of scientific studies. Following a series of scandals involving physicians hiding industry money, the Physician Payment Sunshine Act was passed and is now revealing pharmaceutical-industry cash flowing to physicians, academic medical centers and other key players in medicine.[iv] While not true across all areas of the life sciences, greater transparency toward industry financial relationships, information regarding research methods and outcomes are becoming increasingly realized through the use of clinical trials registries and data repositories.
Although transparency has not been proven to eradicate or prevent misbehavior in science, these efforts make it easier for the experts and regulators to independently evaluate the merits of research, scientific practices and resulting public policy. For instance, industry funding of clinical trials invites further scrutiny of study results by experts.[v] An important component to transparency is ensuring public confidence in science by protecting the ability of journalists, government, and nonprofits to uncover potential corrupt practices, especially when the research may impact public health.
Despite the merits of increased transparency, criticism continues. Last June, the New England Journal of Medicine published a series of articles that questioned whether conflict-of-interest policing had gone too far.[vi] The salvo reverberated because NEJM had been a leader of the transparency movement, a point made by several former editors in a scathing response.[vii]
A less well-covered volte-face comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Like many other advocacy organizations, UCS has long expressed dismay at the distortion of science.[viii],[ix] Yet within the past year, UCS has begun a campaign to blunt the tools with which the public can investigate claims of scientific malfeasance.
Earlier this year, the organization released a report in which it decried using open-access requests to “bully” scientists and to “disrupt or delay their work.”[x] The report cited several cases where scientists had arguably been harassed in the name of transparency. In particular they noted the case of climate scientist Michael Mann, who had been targeted by the Virginia Attorney General and a corporate-funded nonprofit. UCS noted that several academic organizations filed legal briefs in support of Mann, but the organization failed to note that this attempt to hide access to public emails was opposed by a coalition of 18 media organizations including NPR, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press.[xi] The Columbia Journalism Review later panned the UCS report, writing that “sunlight is a benefit for all.”[xii]
In February, a tiny nonprofit, the U.S. Right to Know, sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to several universities. FOIA requests are legal inquiries that allow citizens and other professionals to obtain certain information in the possession of various government entities. These particular requests sought communications between scientists and several companies, trade groups, and PR firms, in order to see if the academics were coordinating their messaging with companies.[xiii]
A journalist reporting on this FOIA request in Science noted that the Organic Consumers Association funds the U.S Right to Know and that many of the scientists targeted are involved with a website called GMO Answers.[xiv] He did not mention that GMO Answers is run by the PR firm Ketchum, on behalf of GMO companies.[xv][xvi]
Upon hearing of these inquiries, a lead analyst at UCS stated, “These requests to the genetic engineering researchers, just like other overly broad open records requests that seek excessive access to scientists’ inboxes, are inappropriate.”[xvii]
Access to Scientists’ Personal Correspondence Can Be Crucial For Safeguarding Public Health
Requests under FOIA for personal correspondence are not just appropriate, but crucial to ensuring transparency. The UCS criticism of open records requests played out around the same time the New York Times ran a front page story regarding Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon is a prominent denier of climate change.[xviii]
The article was largely based upon emails acquired from Soon’s Harvard-Smithsonian account via a Freedom of Information Act request. Those emails revealed not just that Soon failed to disclose conflicts of interest in nearly a dozen papers stemming from some $1.2 million in funding from oil industry and global-warming-denying funding sources, but also that those conflicts went deeper than anyone had suspected: several of Soon’s published papers as well as congressional testimony he prepared – were described as “deliverables” for corporate sponsors.[xix] Other emails released under FOIA found Soon eager to discuss papers submitted to journals with potential corporate funders and exposed his role in helping to advance climate denial by pushing disinformation regarding “Climategate,” a fake scandal that involved stolen emails from climate scientists that were later quoted out of context.[xx] It’s the access to Soon’s mailboxes — not any official documentation of funding, nor even sworn statements before Congress — that revealed this behavior.
This is far from the only instance where scientists’ correspondence has revealed practices which cast doubt on the integrity of research. In November of 2009, for example, states attorneys released e-mail messages and internal documents from Johnson & Johnson and Harvard University’s Joseph Biederman. These internal documents showed that Biederman was assisting the company to convince the psychiatric community that antipsychotics, such as Risperdal, were safe and effective in children.[xxi] For example, Biederman told the drug giant Johnson & Johnson that his planned studies of its medicines in children would yield results benefiting the company; Harvard and Biederman himself were paid millions of dollars for their services, much of which was undisclosed. Johnson & Johnson was later ordered to pay $2.2 billion dollars for misleading doctors about the safety of Risperdal, which was being aggressively marketed toward children.[xxii]
Examining scientists’ communications can also uncover corrupt practices, such as attempts to violate the peer-review process. For instance, while investigating the diabetes drug Avandia, Senate investigators read the internal communications of Steven Haffner, an academic at the University of Texas, who was reviewing a study for the New England Journal of Medicine. Documents show that Haffner undermined the confidentiality of the peer-review process by leaking the draft, weeks before it was published, to GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Avandia. According to a GSK spokesperson, Haffner contacted GSK to get advice on how to evaluate the study’s methodology.[xxiii]
Scientists’ emails have also revealed other mechanisms by which industry exerts control over the scientific literature. A recent Senate investigation released scientists’ emails to show that the device maker Medtronic edited the scientific manuscripts — written by supposedly independent researchers — to support one of their products.[xxiv],[xxv]
Such emails and draft of scientific manuscripts are also important for uncovering medical ghostwriting, a practice in which industry-hired firms write scientific papers, rather than the purported authors of the paper. Ghostwriting played significant roles in many of the most infamous drug product-liability cases in the past decade, including those against Vioxx, Prempro, Paxil, Zyprexa, and Avandia.[xxvi] Without access to internal email drafts of scientific papers, these practices would never have come to light. Denying future access will likely ensure that ghostwriting remains hidden in the future.
The Benefits of Transparency Outweigh the Costs
When witnesses testify before Congress, they must fill out forms to disclose only their ties to the federal government, including any contracts. After seeing Willie Soon’s description of congressional testimony as a corporate “deliverable,” Congressman Raul Grijalva sought to tighten congressional disclosure policies so that witnesses would find it harder to hide their industry ties.[xxvii] But to do so, Grijalva needed to find strong evidence that Soon’s example was not an isolated case. Consequently, he sent requests to seven academics who had given contrarian global-warming testimony before Congress, seeking their financial ties, correspondence, and drafts of their testimony.
UCS’s reaction to Grijalva’s inquiries was muddled and internally contradictory. A UCS science communication officer praised Grijalva’s work, writing that such questions about covert industry influence on “independent” scientific experts “deserve answers.” [xxviii] That same day, another UCS staffer had a very different perspective. He wrote that universities should resist congressional requests for drafts of congressional testimony and scientific correspondence.[xxix] This second argument helped fuel a storyline in the media that likened Grijalva’s request to a McCarthy witch hunt.[xxx]
To be sure, the same mechanisms that watchdogs use to uncover scientific wrongdoing have been abused in the past. Climate scientist Michael Mann, for instance, was subject to invasive and harassing requests for information via freedom of information laws, via judicial-branch powers, and via congressional requests. No doubt they will be abused in the future.
But transparency laws remain a fundamental tool for monitoring possible scientific misbehavior. And it would be a mistake to believe that scientists should not be subject to a high level of outside scrutiny. So long as scientists receive government money, they are subject to government oversight; so long as their work affects the public, journalists and other watchdogs are simply doing their jobs when they seek out possible misconduct and questionable practices that could threaten the public interest. The fruits of that labor are plain to see: UCS has itself cited internal scientists’ communications to make the case that science has been corrupted in instances involving ghostwriting, the manipulation of scientific data at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the altering of scientific conclusions at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.[xxxi],[xxxii],[xxxiii]
Despite the potential for abuse, transparency laws are potent weapons in investigators’ pharmacopeia and will be increasingly important in the coming decade as universities become more entwined with corporate interests. Research has demonstrated that physicians and medical department chairs have considerable ties to industry. Over 80% of the departments surveyed in one article reported at least one relationship with industry, and 94% of physicians have reported ties with pharmaceutical companies.[xxxiv],[xxxv] In the United States, industry funding of medical research has increased relative to other sources, growing from 46% in 1994 to 58% in 2012.[xxxvi] Meanwhile, public funding is continuing to decline.[xxxvii]
The public health implications of these trends are troubling. An examination of clinical research funded by the pharmaceutical industry finds that this financial support tends to produce results in favor of company products.[xxxviii],[xxxix] Biased findings can have far-reaching public health implications as it impacts perceptions of the effectiveness, cost effectiveness and safety of medications; impacting decisions on the allocation of resources, practice guidelines, medical education and clinical decision making.[xl] Importantly, it can erode public trust in science and in medicine, which will have long-reaching negative effects.
Indeed, at a recent congressional hearing to examine the effectiveness of FOIA in advancing transparency and access to public documents, witnesses from journalism, academia and government investigations were united in their view that aggressive demands for public documents advances the public interest.[xli] The main concern expressed by all witnesses had nothing to do with abusive or over-reaching requesters, but that some government entities consistently tried to withhold internal communications to protect themselves from embarrassment. According to one academic witness, this “withhold it because you want to” behavior is widely abused because government wants to keep secret “embarrassing, incriminating, or –sometimes even– burdensome-to-process documents.”[xlii]
The University of Illinois is now facing legal scrutiny after several administrators and academics were caught hiding their work-related business through use of private emails to evade scrutiny from FOIA.[xliii] These hidden emails were recently released and the Chancellor promptly resigned. The university is now examining whether some academics and administrators will be disciplined for this behavior.
Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers.[xliv] Written by the same journalist who had reported on the FOIA request previously for Science, the story noted that the researcher has received money from Monsanto to fund expenses incurred while giving educational talks on GMOs. The article also noted that the PR Firm Ketchum had provided the scientist with canned answers to respond to GMO critics, although it is unclear if he used them.
The article does not report that the scientist has repeatedly denied having a financial relationship with Monsanto.[xlv][xlvi] The article also does not report on an email titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.[xlvii]
UCS maintains that FOIA requests for scientists funding remains fair game, but anything beyond this apparently intrudes into academic freedom.[xlviii] It remains unclear how companies providing canned answers to scientists on scientific topics or scientists advising companies on political campaigns upholds the principles of academic freedom.
What this means in practice is that attempts by universities to withhold public information from the public will likely go unchallenged. As explained by an attorney for the New York Times, such abusive action can only be resolved through litigation, a costly and timely practice that almost ensures the information will remain secret because few citizens have the “resources and know-how to sue.”[xlix]
In short, those working to improve public welfare should oppose attempts to embolden government entities to withhold public information, thus threatening public health and the public trust in science.
Paul D. Thacker is a journalist and consultant, and a former staffer in the United States Senate where he worked on scientific integrity, including passage of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act. He is a Board Member of the James Madison Project, which provides advice and litigation support on Freedom of Information Act requests.
Charles Seife is a journalist and professor of journalism at New York University. He often uses the Freedom of Information Act as a means of investigating issues related to research misconduct and good clinical practice, and is currently suing the Food and Drug Administration for the release of documents related to the scientific integrity of clinical trials.
NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of PLOS.
The authors acknowledge advice and support with key references from Susannah L. Rose, PhD, Professional Staff, Department of Bioethics, Director of Bioethics Research & Policy at Cleveland Clinic and Assistant Professor, Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine Case Western Reserve University.
CORRECTION: From the authors: In our piece we wrote that the scientist – who we did not name but is Kevin Folta – sent an email entitled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” to a Monsanto representative advising them on ways to defeat a California GMO labeling initiative. Our footnote dates that email as 12 September 2011. In fact, that email was sent on 12 September 2014, and it is likely that the title of Folta’s email had a prefix such as “RE:” or “FWD:” before “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update. The originator of the e-mail chain, Bethany Gravell, was the registered agent for the No On 105 Coalition which was organized to defeat a GMO labeling initiative in *Colorado*, not in *California*. Here is the full email:
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[ii] Harris G (25 February 2005) 10 Voters on Panel Backing Pain Pills Had Industry Ties. New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/25/politics/10-voters-on-panel-backing-pain-pills-had-industry-ties.html?_r=2
[iii] Deer B (06 January 2011) How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed. British Medical Journal. 342 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c5347
[iv] Thacker PD (20 February 2013) The Slow Pace of Success in a “Do Something Congress” Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics Harvard University. Available: http://ethics.harvard.edu/blog/slow-pace-success-do-something-congress
[v] Kesselheim A (20 Sept 2012) A Randomized Study of How Physicians Interpret Research Funding Disclosures. New England Journal of Medicine. 367:1119-1127 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa1202397
[vi] Rosenbaum L (7 May 2015) Reconnecting the Dots — Reinterpreting Industry–Physician Relations. New England Journal of Medicine 372:1860-1864 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMms1502493
[vii] Steinbrook R (2 June 2015) Justifying conflicts of interest in medical journals: a very bad idea. British Medical Journal. 350:h2942 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h2942
[viii] Shulma S (March 2004) Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science. Union of Concerned Scientists. Available: http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/rsi_final_fullreport_1.pdf
[ix] Grifo F (February 2012) Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense. The Scientific Integrity Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Available: http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/how-corporations-corrupt-science.pdf
[x] Halpern M (February 215) Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers. Center for Science and Democracy at The Union of Concerned Scientists. Available: http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/02/freedom-to-bully-ucs-2015_0.pdf
[xi] Wihbey J (20 February 2014) Strange Bedfellows … and Fear of Broad Impacts of Mann/UVa Court Ruling. Yale Climate Connections. Available: http://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2014/02/strange-bedfellows-and-fear-of-broad-impacts-of-mann-uva-court-ruling/
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