In the current issue of Science, I report that a dozen university academics recently received freedom of information requests from a non-profit group opposed to genetically modified (GM) products. Why were these 12 scientists selected? In my piece, I write:
The group, U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) of Oakland, California, says it has no vendetta. It has 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, says Executive Director Gary Ruskin. USRTK is interested in documenting links between universities and business, he says, and is “especially looking to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.”
A statement issued by Ruskin after my piece appeared reiterates what he told me in an interview. The headline of his press release: "US Right to Know FOIAs Profs Who Wrote For GMO PR Website" But this, I have since learned, is not accurate. It turns out that a number of the professors--including four of the six researchers targeted at the University of California, Davis--have had no connection with the GMO Answers website. I mentioned this to Ruskin via email today, and he quickly wrote back: "You are correct and I am sorry. My fault." I asked him why he chose those four researchers, if they had nothing to do with the website. He responded with links to two articles (here and here) that show some of the UC Davis academics speaking out and writing on California's 2012 GMO labeling proposition. (It was defeated.) Shortly after my story was published, some biotech scientists expressed free speech concerns. At the Biofortified site, Karl Haro von Mogel, a research geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes that
these FOIA requests risk violating academic freedom and have a silencing effect on scientist-communicators who fear becoming political targets.
Michael Phillips, a scientist at the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics, in Barcelona, Spain, airs similar concerns at his plant biology blog. He writes:
The [freedom of information] requests were filed by the group US Right to Know (USRTK) allegedly to investigate possible improper dealings between public research scientists and private industry partners. I say "allegedly" because this particular group has a history of anti-GMO activism and appears to be motivated by a strict ideology that is not evidence-based. They are also motivated by a desire to embarrass public scientists and disrupt their work. That arouses suspicions this new approach might just be an exploitation of a legal resource to harass and derail scientists doing legitimate research that certain individuals feel ideologically opposed to due to their personal worldview. This seems even more likely considering the scientists who are the subjects of these requests are all outspoken supporters of biotechnology who have engaged with the public to defend and promote the usefulness of this technology.
There are more angles to this story to explore, including the background of the PR agency that oversees the GMO Answers website. But at this moment in time, numerous public sector biotech researchers are feeling as embattled as some of their high profile colleagues in the climate science community. UPDATE: The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report today called, "Freedom to Bully: How Laws Intended to Free Information are Intended to Harass Researchers." Puneet Kollipara at Science magazine has the story.