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FactorGMO: Science Vaporware, from Russia, with a Bad Smell

Did Russia attempt to hack food science and policy?

FactorGMO’s project page at NAGS. http://oagb.ru/about.php?txt_id=15679

In late 2014, with fanfare and a multi-lingual press conference, a group centered in Russia hacked the food media with claims about a huge experiment that they were running. Factor GMO, “The world’s largest international study on GMO safety,” as their press release stated, was launched. Coordinated by activist Elena Sharoykina of the NGO named “National Association for Genetic Safety (NAGS)”, they would steward this $25million project:

The international ‘Factor GMO’ study will be the largest and most comprehensive long-term experiment ever conducted on a GM food and its associated pesticide.

It would be a 2–3 year project that would begin the experimental phase in Spring 2015. During the course of the project they claimed that key details, such as the donors and funders would be released in 2015, and “full data and results of the study will be made publicly available.” In fact, the initial press release noted that we could also expect “interim results being published at regular intervals during that time”.

Their FAQ reported this about the funding: “ The funding process will be totally transparent and a full list of funders will be provided at the start of the experimental phase in 2015….We cannot disclose the exact amount of funds collected until now due to contractual agreements with the funders, however we can say that a high percentage of the total needed has been secured, allowing us to start the experimental phase in Spring 2015.” [emphasis mine]

Gaining credibility by enlisting “internationally respected” scientists for their advisory board, such as Doctors Bruce Blumberg from UC Irvine, Oxana Sinitsyna from the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation Moscow, and Fiorella Belpoggi of the Ramazzini Institute (whose name was in the press release but has since been dropped from the website’s list of scientists), the project scientific review board was claimed to be “neutral” on the issue of GMOs and that these credible scientists would guide the protocols and analysis.

The whole exercise, of course, seems like just another exercise of “doubt is our product”, with their implied message being: we just don’t know, do we? Conveniently, there was a US National Academy of Sciences panel going on at the same time that found a whole lot of knowledge actually did exist and they spent a couple of years compiling a report that’s publicly available.

At the time, compliant reporters like Carey Gillam of Reuters and John Vidal at The Guardian provided articles about the project, among many other pieces that the press conference stunt generated. Following up a bit later, Nathanael Johnson at Grist expressed concerns about the structure and impact of the study.

Though no report or data has yet seen the light of day, and news about the project has stopped, FactorGMO did seem to press on for a while, at least. In February 2015 they announced that a Swiss banker (who is described as “Swiss citizen based in Moscow”) became “its first official Public Board member and donor.” The Public Board page offers a link to Najadi’s “Full Profile” with this address: http://www.najadi.ru/management.php, which as of this writing returns a “404 page not found” error and no profile. As recently as last week, however, when I was checking, it was resolving to the Kremlin.ru domain (I had 2 other people check this, and their experience was the same). At least enjoy a quick peek at Najadi’s Twitter page header photo if you don’t have time for the video. Now locked, I had attempted to contact him when the twitter account was open last fall.

For a long time I’ve been trying to contact the public faces of this project. I tried Kabil too.

Soon after, FactorGMO announced that UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mahmoud Kabil had become a member of their Public Board. So, they had rounded up a variety of reputable scientists and big brand public figures to lend credence to this effort, at least initially.

However, except for one more press release later in 2015, and a final holiday tweet at the year’s end, FactorGMO’s publicity machine had gone dark. Their Facebook page has a couple of additional links to articles critical of GMOs and glyphosate (raising doubts about their loudly professed neutrality). One exception was this photo claiming to have been taken at a Costa Rican resort.

Oh, that’s nowhere near Russia.

Requests to FactorGMO press contacts for pointers to the promised donor list and interim activities, and for the current status of the project, have yielded no further information. I will update if anything does arrive.

At Grist, Johnson reported, “Blumberg is convinced that the study will be ironclad.” So far, the project does seem dense and impenetrable, but not in a good way.

To understand the current state of the project, I approached various public names on this effort. One of them responded with this:

“I am as in the dark about the fate of Factor GMO as you are. I have not heard from anyone associated with the project for at least the past 2 years and perhaps longer….This smells just as bad to me as it does to you.” [emphasis mine]
FactorGMO showing off their press. These are logos highlighted on their media coverage page: http://factorgmo.com/media-coverage/

FactorGMO’s website prominently displays their public facing representatives and their affiliations. Yet these reputable public figures are mostly unavailable, and don’t offer any follow up. Are they calling out this behavior? What is their responsibility after their good names and institutions have been used for their scientific credibility? What if one’s good name and UNICEF affiliation was flogged and misused? Where is the “Public Board” whose role included media?

Further — where are the journalists? You were given clickbait by Russians that you dutifully posted and got readers, but you have not followed up at all. They used you to sow doubt. They used your logos to brag about the coverage and the publicity that they got from you. They used you to lure potential donors, presumably. Why aren’t you following up on this possible science con? Why is there no accountability?

Ironically, in The Guardian, a leading organic activist opined:

Peter Melchett, policy director with the Soil Association, said: “I welcome this. It has been a scientific fraud that no scientific study like this has been done in the past.”

Where are the organic activists now?

It may in fact be, in my opinion, a scientific fraud if this study was not done after garnering lavish press and donations, while potentially tarnishing the names of the respected supporters and institutions. Or if it has been done, why have none of the initial promises been kept? Where is the donor information? Where are the interim data? Why don’t the press contacts respond to simple and reasonable queries? If the public-facing scientists haven’t been involved in this project for years, can anyone trust the outcome they promised?

A few months ago, a donor left this plaintive query on the site:

A purported donor is “a little bit nervous”.

There has been no response to this donor’s query on FactorGMO’s website.

What is the professional responsibility of the participating scientists? And the journalists? This organization bragged about your participation and your stories and showed off your affiliations and logos. They used you to help vacuum up donations. Were you played by the Russians? Why aren’t you standing up and calling this out?

Lately there have been reports based on research by American academics that “Russia uses ‘information warfare’ to portray GMOs negatively”. [See the now-published paper: Sowing the seeds of skepticism: Russian state news and anti-GMO sentiment (preprint version)]. There has also been cross-pollination and shared messaging with western anti-GMO groups. Anti-GMO allies are actively trying to recover from being tarnished by these revelations, and explain how much they understand Russia on this and portray themselves as just trying to protect us from American GMO dictatorship. How curious. Will the public and the media keep getting played by Russia and fellow travelers?

Scientists are blamed because the public and policy makers have the wrong idea on contentious science issues. Maybe there’s something else going on.

In mainstream science publication, we have a mechanism to retract articles that fail on various issues — validity, ethics, fraud. But what can we do about bogus science-by-press-release? We have no recourse for straightening out the record. We need to rely on journalists for that.

If you are a reporter, why wouldn’t you investigate a $25million science project that evaporated? Is there journalistic responsibility to the public for the outcome of these stories? What would that look like?