UCSF’s Dangerous Targeting of Academic Researchers

False Depiction of University Researchers as Enemies of Public Health May have Serious Consequences

The University of California at San Francisco has compiled a database of documents claimed to shine a bright light on the “industries that harm public health”. The database claims to house millions of documents from the tobacco, drug, and chemical industries.

Including tens of thousands of my emails.

I’ve been a public scientist my entire career. I did do a short $3.35/hour internship with Cargill Hybird Seeds in 1990 that taught me that I did not work in the biotech industry. Today I am a tenured Professor a the University of Florida. I have an amazingly talented lab group that studies the genes that regulate strawberry aromas and how we can use LED lights for sustainable indoor food production. My research has been funded almost solely by USDA, NSF and the Florida strawberry industry (all funding shown here). My wife and I (well, almost all her) run a small fruit and vegetable farm where we produce high-quality local produce for farmers markets.

I also am a teacher, and get excited about the possible solutions that biotechnology can bring for farmers, the environment and the food insecure. I enjoy public interaction and sharing science.

But some people don’t like that I communicate about this technology.

So how did 20,000 of my private emails become part of UCSF’s Chemical Industry collection?

An activist group called US-RTK requested my emails back in February 2015. The first thing I did was pick up the phone and call them. I spoke with Gary Ruskin, co-founder of the organization. I was glad to tell him whatever he wanted. He said, “I want the emails.”

The university produced tens of thousands of pages of my private correspondences, gathered under the Freedom of Information Act and Florida Sunshine Laws. These laws are great for ensuring transparent access to public documents. I never realized my request for a lavaliere mic over a hand held one would be a record of interest.

Over the next four years Ruskin and USRTK would post hateful pages about me, cherry picking sentences and using phrases out of context in an attempt to destroy my credibility. He’d claim that fully disclosed funds were secret under the table payoffs. Here’s a little taste. But nobody cared except for other anti-biotechnology groups, so while it was annoying, their antics didn’t change anyone’s minds. They needed help from an organization with some credibility…

A Resource to Understand Underhanded Tactics and Unethical Players

The Industry Documents Library at the University of California San Francisco is a good idea in principle. Let’s face it, the last century was pock-marked with companies abusing the environment, emitting poisons and harming people in the process. From cigarettes to leaded fuels, to the Union Carbide Disaster in Bhopal India, there were lot of public health atrocities that we recognize, and we stand grateful to those that blew whistles and shook fists in the name of public health.

Connected to the power of the internet and access to documents with FOIA laws, watchdog groups now have unprecedented ability to examine the inner workings of companies that interact with government agencies. This is a very good thing. UCSF’s Industry Documents Library provides access to documents gathered in analysis of the inner workings of the tobacco, drug and chemical industries. This is a good resource because we can all remember cover ups and schlock science that led to environmental or heath problems.

This resource allows one to explore the mechanisms that inside interests used to downplay problems and misrepresent risk. It is designed to be a library of the dastardly works of bad actors.

Anti-Scientist Organization US-RTK Exploits UCSF’s Non-Filter

US-RTK wants me gone, or at least wants to make an irreparable dent in my reputation. My research is not questionable, and I teach information consistent with the scientific consensus. I do a weekly podcast about biotechnology and run workshops for scientists and farmers about the nuance of communicating science to concerned citizens. I’ve won awards for public outreach. As we teach and earn the public’s trust, it threatens the profits and positions of US-RTK’s sponsors.

It is not just me. A growing cadre of public researchers have stepped into the discussion of biotechnology and its applications. The public tide is changing, and those bold enough to connect with the public have become unwilling targets of US-RTK.

But nobody listens to US-RTK, so they needed to dupe a credible source into carrying out their mission of character assassination for them. The strategy was simple, get innocent researchers labeled as guilty by association and perceived as deep pawns of corporate chemical industry collusion with a very simple trick — get their papers into the Industry Documents Library. The UCSF Industry Documents Library has no filter*. It accepts anything from US-RTK and places them into the “Chemical Industry Documents” regardless of their content. That’s where my emails now reside.

What you will find. If you visit the Industry Documents Library and search with my name, you’ll find 474 results presenting tens of thousands of my private emails. You’ll find my conversations with students, my strategizing for a grant proposal with a colleague, and you’ll find my private tax documents bearing my home address, phone number and social security number**. In one you’ll find my request for a lavaliere microphone rather than a handheld for a seminar at Cornell. Yes, all clearly evidence of deep industry collusion and misdeeds.

You see the words of a professor attempting to broaden the understanding of new technology, and teaching others how to do that. I was excited to answer questions for the public via the “GMO Answers” website, where I provided honest, evidence-based answers to submitted questions. You see me trying to host workshops, arrange speakers, and critique sloppy policies. You see me doing my job.

You also will see that I am happy to talk to representatives from various agricultural industries, helping them with their messaging or critiquing their approach to a communications problem. That’s my job as a public, Land Grant University professor. We are expected to assist industry, especially those associated with agriculture. That’s not my big idea, blame Abraham Lincoln and the Morrill Act of 1862.

What you won’t find is anything illegal, unethical, or improper. One prominent journalist looked through my emails and noted on Twitter, “That guy is a boy scout.”

Ultimately, you can peruse tens of thousands of pages of my personal email, archived and represented by UCSF as the evil tactics of the chemical industry, an industry I don’t work for or interact with. It is guilt by association, but without a judge or jury — it is pure character assassination, as prescribed by US-RTK and executed by UCSF.

A False Association Turns Dangerous

Documents in a library don’t have much impact. Most people don’t go fishing for them, so it seems silly to even care. The problem is that US-RTK and its lackeys use social media to point out that researchers like me are well represented in the archives of evil, unethical scientists.

In the graphic above, hostile journalist Paul Thacker notes that the Chemical Industry Library houses my documents in the agrichemical collection, as part of “the top medical school in the United States.” Top school, thousands of Folta’s documents in the evildoers’ library… wow Folta must be a scumbag.

Remember, this is in a library of documents by entities that “harm public health”.

The library also hosts many pages with my personal information, such as home address and phone number. Here US-RTK affiliate Paul Thacker notes that I work for Monsanto (although I never received a penny from them personally, and they never funded my research) and am not truly an independent scientist (which I most certainly am). He insinuates that I work for a hated company, uses UCSF’s credibility to bolster his position, and then provides my personal information including my social security number**.

Why would someone do that?

Why Provide Personal Info and Make a False Association?

First of all, the W9 is well explained. It covered exact cost of reimbursement when I spoke to farmers in Colorado about biotech technology.

The only goal I can imagine is intimidation, or perhaps his want for some lone wolf to burn down my house, harass my family, harm me or steal my identity. And UCSF is a complicit, because they endorse my documents as part of the Chemical Industry Collection of corporate misdeeds.

It happens. It was reported last November that in Puebla, Mexico two men were labeled as kidnappers and child traffickers — based on a rumor propagated by WhatsApp. In a horrific brutal mob attack, they were torn from police custody, beaten, doused in gas and burned alive.

Remember, US-RTK and folks like Thacker daily assault the reputations of public researchers, and they now have the full faith and credibility of UCSF behind them. A taxpayer-funded institution is being manipulated by anti-science activists to harm taxpayer-funded scientists. This is serious.

Remedies?

I have requested that my documents be removed, as I don’t work with the “chemical industry” and there is no evidence of impropriety. US-RTK has exploited UCSF’s lack of a filter to label me and other public scientists guilty by association, based on zero evidence. To their credit, they did agree to redact my personal information, so that’s a step in the right direction.

I explained that if they had evidence of illicit industry influence or if I did something illegal or unethical, then by all means, catalog those emails! But why post my private conversation about my postdoc’s kid’s Tee-Ball game?

I feel a bit helpless. US-RTK wants scientists silenced and now owns the UCSF Libraries. They’ll obviously do whatever Ruskin asks without considering the facts or the potential implications on public researchers, their labs and even families.

Will this affect me and others?

Nobody listens to US-RTK except for those subscribing to their crooked little echo chamber. Few people of importance will search the UCSF Industry Documents Library with my name. There is nothing in there that is negative about me, or indicates the implied specter of inappropriate industry collusion. So ultimately it is likely benign in affecting my day-to-day activities and long-term reputation.

But what it does do is lend UCSF’s weight and credibility, as in the email above, to activist rants and false claims that are designed to foment anger against public scientists and perhaps provoke personal or professional harm. It also may be a basis to eliminate public scientists from serving on panels, being considered for job or other opportunities because nobody wants to deal with the allegations of someone being biased because of connection to “industries that harm public health”.

It also exposes students, colleagues, postdocs and others to potential negative consequences, as they didn’t ask for their emails to be distributed to a database that implies guilt by association.

Conclusion

The activist takeover of a public university resource has leveraged UCSF’s credibility to attempt to tarnish the reputations of public university professors, journalists and others that teach inconvenient truths about biotechnology. More importantly, UCSF’s validation of the correspondences as illicit corporate intertwinings has the potential to fuel outrage against public servants. Those intent on their personal and professional demise exploit and echo UCSF’s endorsement of these researchers as enemies of public health.

* The UCSF Industry Documents Library was presented with emails showing clear evidence of pay-for-play arrangements between the organic food industry and a professor, and another stating that someone at a prominent company didn’t care if a result was reliable, just that there was a result (against biotech). This is industry manipulation of scientific evidence. The Industry Documents Library refused to catalog these documents.

** At least a portion of my personal information has been redacted by UCSF, although my phone number was distributed via Twitter earlier today.