We need to talk about Kevin

Robin Bisson
Oct 29, 2015 · 5 min read

Why personally scrutinizing a scientist who communicates to the public is risky business.

Since July, controversy has been boiling around the plant scientist Kevin Folta. Like most stories about GMOs, the focus has been on issues surrounding the fraught subject rather than on the science itself. Emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests between Folta, Monsanto employees and an industry-hired PR firm have sparked heated debate about conflict of interest, industry relations and transparency.

The emails were requested by U.S. Right to Know, a campaign group who bill themselves as ‘working to expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know.’ Nature were first to publish, revealing that Folta had accepted a $25,000 no-strings-attached donation through the University of Florida for his outreach program on biotechnology. The New York Times then ratcheted up attention with a front page story on how food companies had coopted academic scientists in PR and lobbying efforts, including further details of Folta’s interactions with Monsanto.

Neither article suggested any research findings had been skewed by industry influence, nor that in his outreach activities Folta had strayed from communicating the scientific evidence. But criticism circled around his previous claims of having no relationship with Monsanto, and the fact that the grant was not disclosed.

It didn’t sit well that a scientist was allowing industry to give him a higher public platform

Folta defended himself by saying the company had never been involved in his research and that he had listed Monsanto as a sponsor on slides at his outreach talks. But for many the money was proof of an academic being dishonest about his industry relationships, trumping the question of whether Folta was sticking to the scientific evidence, and thereby undermining trust. That liaising with companies is literally in the job description for many agricultural scientists didn’t matter to a public audience unaccustomed to the norms of academia; it just didn’t sit well that a scientist was allowing industry to give him a higher public platform.

As Keith Kloor, the journalist who originally broke the Nature story has pointed out, researchers should be aware that there is a “legacy that makes some rightfully suspicious of industry” which cannot be discounted just because the science is on industry’s side. Perception and public trust are too important to be overlooked and Folta wrote publicly about painful lessons learned and the importance of proactive transparency.

It was shaping up to be an important cautionary tale. But then things took an unusual turn.

The controversy has been grist to the mill of the online feud between GMO detractors and defenders, made more acute by Folta’s position as a familiar champion of plant biotechnology who spends considerable energy engaging with critics online. Where most scientists would have stepped back from scrutiny by mainstream media, Folta has continued to tweet, blog, podcast and publish. And this unusual public existence has pushed the story beyond public interest and onto Kevin Folta the person.

Last week, BuzzFeed published a long profile of Folta by science journalist Brooke Borel which focused on a podcast called The Vern Blazek Power Hour. Folta was revealed to be the lispy host who had interviewed people about biotechnology, including, rather bizarrely, himself. The article questions Folta’s judgment in hosting a podcast on a controversial topic in a manner which some might consider deceptive (it was not explicit that Folta was Blazek) and paints an embarrassing picture of a clueless scientist.

Borel’s story is engaging, deeply researched and well written. But something about it made me feel uncomfortable. Strip away the strange details and at its heart the story is not about industry promotion, undisclosed grants or lobbying, but a researcher communicating about science being scrutinized to a degree few other researchers experience.

Science journalists should never feel a sense of loyalty to scientists; critical journalism plays a fundamental role in holding science to account, and as Borel pointed out in response to her critics, science journalism is not science advocacy. She was miles within the norms of journalism and was scrupulous with the facts, pointing out that Folta is on the side of mainstream science on GMO safety and that U.S. Right To Know is largely financed by the Organic Consumers Association, a group that questions the scientific evidence.

But unlike the clear public interest angle of the New York Times article, which focused on agroindustry (and organic) companies coopting academics as a means to achieve their commercial goals, I found it hard to find a clear public interest angle in the BuzzFeed profile.

Scrutinizing scientists in public for their communications activities, however strange, gambles with the willingness of scientists to talk about their work.

There are, of course, many reasons to publish articles, and Borel’s story is an intelligent read that muses on unconscious bias and the misunderstanding of public perception. But scrutinizing scientists in public for their communications activities, however strange, rather than more heinous crimes, gambles with the willingness of scientists to talk about their work.

I have personally experienced scientists saying they are stepping back from talking in public about GMOs because of the FOIA saga. (I get scientists to comment on news about genetics and biotechnology for a living, including, once, Kevin Folta on a story about genetically engineered oranges). The same withdrawal of scientists is being documented elsewhere, and I fear that the embarrassment of a poster boy for science communicators will hasten the process, and those who step back will be those with less hardened positions on the GMO spectrum.

But it’s precisely those more nuanced, middling voices who the public really need to hear from. As Nathanael Johnson, food writer at Grist, told me about researching his excellent deep dive series on GMOs, it’s really hard to find honest brokers on the topic. Those who have been involved in public debate are biased from their battle scars, “they’ve been pissed off by taking it in the neck so often.”

Another high profile science journalist once told me he thought there was a cadre of scientists organized to knock down criticism of GMOs, and perhaps this is being confirmed by the released emails. But it is also being reinforced. There are over 40 scientists who have received FOIA requests, and for those feeling under attack it will get harder and harder to see out of the trenches.

If the hardened advocates are the only scientific voices left, the quality of public conversation about GMOs will keep on going downhill.

Robin Bisson

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Currently at @KingsIoPPN, previously @AusSMC, @GeneticExperts, @SMC_London. Only occasionally here.