"Transparency" should not equal a license to harass scientists

While perusing the New York Times over the weekend, I was disturbed to see an article by Paul D. Thacker that basically advocated using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request e-mails from scientists in search of undisclosed industry ties. The article was entitled, disturbingly, Scientists, Give Up Your Emails. Thacker, as you might recall, wrote a highly biased article with Charles Seife for PLoS One attacking scientists who work on and defend genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and foods made from them from pseudoscientific attacks by cranks like Vani Hari, better known as The Food Babe. It was an article that was ultimately retracted. Reviewing his articles, not just the retracted PLoS One article, but his most recent NYT article, I find it hard not to conclude that Thacker advocates the unfettered use of FOIA requests, even abusive ones, to go on fishing expeditions for undisclosed conflicts of interest (COIs), real or imagined. Basically, to Thacker, if scientists not engaged in any wrongdoing get hurt (like Folta), that's just tough doodie. This became clear to me when I saw a Twitter exchange involving Thacker about his article (more on that later).

A bit of background is in order regarding why I care about this. A couple of months ago, I wrote about what I called a sad day for science advocacy. It was such a sad day because a staunch advocate for the science of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) against the pseudoscience and fear mongering that GMO opponents use, publicly announced that he was withdrawing from public advocacy. This public advocate was Kevin Folta, a food and agricultural science professor at the University of Florida. Indeed, it's not for nothing that I describe anti-GMO activists as using the same fallacious arguments as the antivaccine movement. For his efforts, Folta had endured incredible harassment at the hands of anti-GMO activists, who labeled him a Monsanto shill and did their very best to intimidate him into silence.

The harassment reached its climax last year when US Right to Know (USRTK)—a nonprofit that sells itself as "dedicated" to exposing “the failures of the corporate food system“—hit Folta with a frivolous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that was clearly meant as a fishing expedition and a means of punishing Folta. What was less reported was that USRTK is a lobbying arm of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), which funded it to the tune of $194,500 thus far. The OCA appears to be USRTK's only major donor. So basically, an industry that stands to benefit by demonizing GMOs used FOIA to harass scientists thusly:

The request is a response to public arguments by Folta that genetically modified foods are safe. Folta compares the strength of the scientific consensus on GM safety to the consensus on climate change and vaccines, and US Right to Know—or USRTK—believes the food and agricultural industries may be pressuring Folta and other scientists into voicing such arguments.

On January 28, US Right to Know sent out a FOIA request targeting 14 scientists at four universities, including Folta, requesting that they all turn over their email correspondence with industry representatives. Gary Ruskin, the executive director of USRTK, says the move is essential for uncovering the food industry’s efforts to manipulate scientists into advancing pro-genetically-modified propaganda.

One notes that the scientists had a truly difficult choice when confronted with such an FOIA: Submit all of their emails and allow lawyers to sift through them independently, or spend hours doing it themselves alongside legal counsel. Of course, that's the point. That's why groups like USRTK make such FOIA. It's a feature, not a bug, of such requests. If the cranks find something they can use to smear the target, so much the better, but even if they don't they will have caused their target major headaches and have wasted many hours of their time, hours when they can't be doing research or public science advocacy. As Steve Novella noted, it's a win-win strategy for groups like USRTK. Even better, if the scientists push back or complain about an invasion of privacy, those complaints and any resistance to providing the e-mails can be spun as "evidence" of a coverup, with help from even crankier cranks like Mike Adams.

In this case, USRTK did find something that its director Gary Ruskin could spin negatively. It turns out that the University of Florida accepted a small unrestricted grant ($25,000) from Monsanto, to be used to pay for travel expenses, meals, and other minor expenses associated with public outreach. In medicine, for example, this is not an uncommon sort of grant from companies, be they pharmaceutical companies or other companies, and “unrestricted” means just that: The company giving the grant provides the funds for the the institution receiving them to use without preconditions. The finding resulted in unfavorable coverage in the NYT that was criticized for bias. For example, the main scientific critic of Folta's interviews, Charles Benbrook, is funded by the organic food industry, which was quickly countered with an observation that "the biotech industry has published dozens of articles, under the names of prominent academics, that in some cases were drafted by industry consultants," as if that makes Benbrook's bias excusable. (Two wrongs don't make a right, or make a biased scientist like Benbrook any more credible.)

I will say something right here. Folta did screw up. A lot of us skeptics circling the wagons are reluctant to admit that. I was reluctant to admit that. I now realize that he did, but I think he did it more out of naïveté than out of any intent to hide anything. If he had simply said that his university had that unrestricted grant and that he had accessed some of its funs, the cranks would have still attacked him but there wouldn't have been even a hint of an appearance of impropriety. Unfortunately, all it takes to ruin one's reputation sometimes is appearance

Those of us in medicine know that we fail to avoid such appearances at our peril, which is why we must disclose any funds received from a pharmaceutical company, no matter how small and no matter how innocuous. That's why I not infrequently point out that I once received a one time grant from Bayer for £40,000 for a small research project. (That wasn't even enough to pay for a postdoc for a year.) I also received $12,000 back in the 1990s from Rhône-Poulenc (which no longer exists as an independent company) as part of a payout for a patent I had with my PhD thesis advisor, who was fair enough to include me because I did much of the work even though he wasn't strictly obligated to. I also learned that, even if you do disclose everything, cranks can try to paint you as having an undisclosed COI, as Jake Crosby did five years ago when, because my university had a grant from Sanofi-Aventis (which I had nothing to do with) and I was doing research on what was then a Sanofi-Aventis drug (but is no more) it meant that I was in the pocket of vaccine manufacturers.

When you work in a field where cranks are looking for anything they can find that they can turn against you, that's what you have to do.

Even realizing that cranks are waiting, ready to pounce, there was no excuse for what cranks did with the information culled by USRTK. Nor was there an excuse for the threats that Folta endured or the publication of his home address to intimidate him. As I pointed out at the time, I've learned that the tactics used by various anti-science cranks, be they antivaccinationists, quacks, anthropogenic global climate change denialists, or anti-GMO activists, are often similar and often include targeting their opponents at their jobs. If harassment at work doesn't work, maybe frivolous harassing FOIA requests will.

There is a serious issue here. Much of this research is paid for by public money, through government grants, and/or carried out at public universities. If you're a scientist at a public university, you're pretty much wide open to FOIA requests. If you're at a private university you might still be open to them if you receive federal funding. In any case, there is a case to be made for transparency. The question boils down to the specifics, how much transparency and what is the balance between the privacy of what scientists discuss via e-mail compared to the public's right to know. Personally, I tend to treat e-mails in my university e-mail account as though they could be subject to FOIA at any minute, which no doubt sometimes inhibits what I write even just on the off chance of embarrassment if I say something stupid or let my tendency towards—shall we say?—insolence run a little too free.

If you want an idea of where Thacker is coming from, all you have to do is to look at this paragraph from his NYT article:

One of our examples focused on a small nonprofit, U.S. Right to Know, which advocates for the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. The group filed Freedom of Information requests seeking the correspondence of scientists at public universities, some of whom wrote for a website backed by the agrochemical industry.

Notice what Thacker left out: the fact that USRTK is basically a propaganda organization paid for by the organic crop industry. This is something that is not even in contention. Even if it were, if Thacker were truly interested in "transparency" rather than biased advocacy, he would have mentioned that USRTK is heavily funded by the organic industry just for that reason.

Not surprisingly, he was called out on Twitter by Alan Levinovitz for having left that little bit of critical information out. Basically, Levinovitz pointed out that USRTK is funded by the organic industry. Thacker replied:

When Levinovitz persisted—civilly, I might add—Thacker blocked him:

If it's true that the NYT editor didn't think it important to point out in an article advocating that scientists "give up their e-mails" in the name of transparency that the funding source of the group who filed an FOIA used as an example to argue for such "transparency" was a group who would benefit from disclosure of those e-mails, then that's bias on the NYT's part. If Thacker didn't fight to include that information, then that just reveals the bias on his part. To him, it doesn't appear to be about "transparency" but about attacking scientists who defend GMOs, like Kevin Folta. Basically, I call BS on Thacker's excuse, and his blocking Levinovitz shows a disturbing unwillingness to engage with critics.

He also shows a disturbing lack of concern for the fallout:

As interest groups on both the left and right increasingly try to politicize the scientific process, there’s little question that there will be misuse of the Freedom of Information laws that some journalists and watchdog organizations have used to uncover wrongdoing.

Scientists have been harassed in the past and no doubt will continue to be harassed in the future, just like other public servants. You can argue that Mr. Smith’s broadsides against NOAA are a case in point. In turn, scientists are free to fight these information requests or seek to narrow the scope of the inquiries to protect against what they believe threatens the integrity of the scientific process or chills research.

But the harassment argument should not be used as an excuse to bar access to scientific research that the public is paying for and has a legitimate interest in seeing.

Of course, no one is saying that harassment should be used as an "excuse" to bar access to scientific research. No one. What is being expressed is concern about balancing the public's right to know with the potential for the harassment of scientists. Remember, in Folta's case, the harassment went beyond just making him give up his e-mails. It involved dissemination of his e-mails in such a manner as to guarantee that cranks would harass him at home and even harass his family. Given how utterly predictable such a consequence of releasing those e-mails was, I do not believe for a minute denials on the part of Ruskin or Thacker that they didn't know or had no way of predicting.

Thacker's attitude is also chillingly blithe. Dealing with legal actions is not something most people have experience with, including scientists. While lawyers and lobbyists, who deal with legal challenges all the time, might think them no big deal, the average person will be subject to enormous stress when they learn they're at the receiving end of a legal action. The thought of having to go to court to fight to narrow a FOIA request or fight these frivolous and harassing FOIA requests is a big deal, even if the scientists' universities are paying for it. The cranks making these FOIA requests know this. They're counting on it. Again, that's a feature of these requests, not a bug. Similarly, while complying with such requests is onerous, fighting them is even more onerous, particularly given that the scientist could lose and still have to go through all the work of complying anyway in addition to the work of fighting the requests.

Some of the commenters took Thacker to task for the one-sidedness of Thacker's article. A common theme (one I agree with) is that his call for "transparency" would be more convincing and easier to take if the same standard were applied to, for instance, Representative Lamar Smith. His harassment of climate scientists would be put very much in context if members of the public could request his e-mail exchanges with donors, energy industry officials, and the like. Or, as another commenter quipped:

Finally, why focus on scientists for this e-mail trawl? Why not all government employees? I for one want to see all of Paul D. Thacker's e-mails from the time he worked for the US Senate. Don't worry, it isn't malicious-- it is for transparency.

Indeed. Perhaps some FOIA requests are indicated here. Transparency, you know. Of course, scientists like myself, who work for state universities, already know our e-mails could be subject to FOIA requests. Indeed, I'm rather surprised that I've not yet been subject to such a request by antivaccine loons. Of course, because I do my best to keep my blogging activities separate from my work, such a request would be pretty pointless. All my blog e-mail goes through either a Gmail account or one of my private e-mail accounts.

Another pointed out:

Launching an investigation into scientists' correspondence without having beforehand evaluated the research on its own merit is indeed a politically motivated witch-hunt, and one that ought to be resisted.

Which is quite correct.
Others pointed out (quite rightly) that if you knew your e-mails were open to anyone you'd write a lot less in them and make more phone calls. As a result, there would be less candor in e-mails and research would suffer. Basically, as one commenter pointed out, we shouldn't allow fishing expeditions going after scientists' e-mails any more than we allow fishing expeditions in a court of law. Thacker doesn't see it that way:

I don't agree.

There are certainly legitimate reasons for scientists' e-mails, but there really do need to be reasonable limits to protect scientists from the sort of abusive fishing expeditions to which Folta and other agricultural scientists or climate scientists have been subjected. In the end, I couldn't help but read Thacker's article as being extremely disingenuous and self-serving as it downplayed the costs of allowing unfettered FOIA-facilitated harassment of scientists as merely the cost of receiving government funding for science or working for the government. There needs to be a balance. I don't claim to know what that balance should be, but I do claim that Thacker's way goes too far. His "transparency" is a license to harass.

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There needs to be some kind of protection for scientists. Apparently you can't do any email lest some custard-head get it in mind to snoop your correspondence. What happened to the right to privacy ?
As for comment 1 :
Well, you know, GMOS are causing chronic lyme disease (non-existent illness) and morgellons syndrome (another non-existent illness) . So, the connection is complete. Nothing plus nothing equals nothing.

Oh man. Tough to take one-sided calls for transparency seriously. What would be nice would be something like anti-SLAPP laws but for FOIA requests. Someone ought to file a FOIA on Thacker and see if he can resist crying "harassment". For balance.

By capnkrunch (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

I followed this exchange on twitter, and I was dumbfounded by the fact that the journalist calling for more transparency would block someone pointing out that his recent NYT article was lacking it in regards to USRTK. Irony much, Thaker?

By Dr. Chim Richalds (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

"...the main scientific critic of Folta’s interviews, Charles Benbrook, is funded by the organic food industry, which was quickly countered with an observation that “the biotech industry has published dozens of articles, under the names of prominent academics, that in some cases were drafted by industry consultants,” as if that makes Benbrook’s bias excusable. (Two wrongs don’t make a right, or make a biased scientist like Benbrook any more credible.)"

What are these "dozens of articles" allegedly "published" by the biotech industry? Is Benbrook referring to articles appearing on industry websites, or insinuating that this occurs in the scientific literature? Given the eagerness of anti-GMOers to paint the massive amount of research validating GM safety as biased towards industry, I'd expect instances of (for instance) ghostwritten articles would've been widely publicized - but I haven't seen that happening.

On the other hand, I _have_ seen examples of serious conflict of interest in the sparse scientific* literature alleging GM harm - for instance the "pig inflammation" study in which one of the co-authors (Howard Vlieger) neglected to reveal that he headed a company selling non-GM grain.

*it is probably an abuse of the term to refer to this mess as "scientific".

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

I think scientists have to dig in and fight jerks like Thacker. I say that, however, being my own boss and having no leverage points (such as grants or federal funding) that someone could use to file a FOIA upon me, so other than people calling my clinic to tell me staff I'm a "vaccine bully", I haven't had to endure much and certainly won't get fired over it.

Irony meters often blow with the folks who scream COI the most (Thacker, Wakefield, Adams) as they will have stunning huge COIs themselves.

By Chris Hickie (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

Chris@7: Yes, with many cranks, you see more projection than a movie theater. That's true of political cranks like Rep. Smith as well as medical cranks like the primary subject of this post.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

I am torn on this issue. FOIA laws are very important to allow people to see how their government is functioning, not just through official output, but how it is developed. Having been a government employee for the federal government as a technical expert and as an assistant professor at a state university, I understood that my emails and work products were not my own. Whatever I did ultimately belonged to the people.

I'm not going to go into details, but I have been the victim of these kinds of tactics from the anti-vaccine side. When I wrote on my blog about Desiree Jennings six years ago, a certain organization requested all of my work emails. I happily handed them over in one big zipped drive because I made it a rule to not use work email for nothing but work. That, and I had nothing to hide. My statements of fact were backed up by evidence on those blog posts.
But I heard the comments from friends and colleagues about how "scary" it must be, or how much of a headache that all became. And they were right. For a few blog posts that took me maybe an hour to write, total, I had days and days of having to explain myself to people all up and down the food chain and even the threat of a lawsuit.
You would think that academia would be a little more protective with "academic freedom" and stuff.

I didn't really understand the tweets when I saw them w/o some time investment. I'm glad that I spent the time here and I appreciate your education on this subject.

A little further reading and it appears that Paul Thacker has his own sordid history.

http://www.keithkloor.com/?p=14917

I understand why university emails are public property and why going into an FOIA you don't know which party (or both) is the one damaging the public trust but I agree with Keith Kloor that there has to be accountability on the part of the receivers of the information and on what they do with it.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

It turns out that the University of Florida accepted a small unrestricted grant ($25,000) from Monsanto

Unfortunately, even a single penny would have been one too many in the eyes of Folta's opposition.
Playing Devil's advocate, I have to admit it's difficult to say that Monsanto's gift could not have influenced positively whose on the receiving end. After all, that's why private companies are giving money, to promote a friendly atmosphere for exchange and potential collaborative work (or simply buying their products, for the providers of scientific instruments).
Even more so since $ 25,000 is more than the yearly salary of a lot of people, including myself. You cannot tell people it's peanuts, even if it's true to you.
(although anti-GMO activists like Shiva are rumored to get a lot more than this per talk - in their case, 25k is getting closer to peanuts...)

If someone, anyone was to give 25k to my lab, we could use it to hire a much needed extra pair of hands (either directly or by using it for travel expenses and thus saving money from another source). We would certainly feel grateful to the donor.
To the point of dancing to its tune? Um, no. I hope not.
But we certainly wouldn't be honest in claiming we are independent from this donor.

tl;dr: I'm afraid to say that K. Folta did mess up by not revealing this donation / by not recognizing it for the poisoned gift it is.
That, and a few other mistakes, from what I gathered.

But as a scientist colleague told me, there is no way (or little way) an academic scientist can work on plants, seeds and the like and never have any contact with anyone from the agribusinesses. They are big players in the field and cannot be systematically ignored or avoided. Science is not done in a vacuum.

All of that being said;

Even realizing that cranks are waiting, ready to pounce, there was no excuse for what cranks did with the information culled by USRTK. Nor was there an excuse for the threats that Folta endured or the publication of his home address to intimidate him.

Completely agree on all accounts.

By Helianthus (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

When I wrote on my blog about Desiree Jennings six years ago, a certain organization requested all of my work emails. I happily handed them over in one big zipped drive because I made it a rule to not use work email for nothing but work. That, and I had nothing to hide. My statements of fact were backed up by evidence on those blog posts.

Yup. That's what I do. I try very hard to keep my blogging separate from my work, and particularly my blog-related e-mail separate from work e-mail. Anything related to my blogging goes to the Gmail account for this blog or an iCloud account that I use for my not-so-super-secret other blog. It's also why whenever anyone e-mails me at my work e-mail address about a blog-related issue I ignore it if it's someone I don't know or quickly switch over to one of my non-work e-mail addresses if it's someone I do know.

Sure, there are occasionally gray areas. If a reporter, for instance, contacts me at my work e-mail address about something blog-related, I usually don't go to the trouble of switching over to one of my private addresses, but I usually also notify our PR department because our PR director doesn't like surprises, such as finding me quoted in the NYT or something without her prior knowledge. I also consider such interviews close enough to work related as to be OK to discuss on work e-mail. Anyone who saw those e-mails would likely only see back-and-forth messages about setting up a time, further questions, fact checking, asking me to verify that a quote is correct, etc.

Actually, although they are not subject to FOIA, I assume my blog e-mails could become public as well. Not long ago, as a certain person was threatening to sue me over one of my blog posts (you wouldn't believe who it was if I told you; it's not an antivaxer, quack, or antiscoience crank), I learned this the hard way because this person was also suing someone else and subpoenaed relevant e-mails, which nabbed a couple of e-mails where I said something unflattering. This person got them and tried to use them to threaten me.

The bottom line is that e-mails are not necessarily private. Sure, it's much harder to get a subpoena than to do a FOIA request, but if legal actions occur even e-mails from private accounts can be revealed.

@Orac,

My first guess would be the radiologist. But since this isn't a guessing game, I don't expect an answer.

However, I would like to know how your organization handles their confidentiality disclaimer on emails. Our company had one but certain managers believing in the incompetence of their employees decided to enforce a rule that all emails should display it. I pushed back saying that not all emails contained confidential information (some were just good natured banter with remote Sales staff). Anyway, they didn't listen to me. But a couple of months later, the company lawyers shut that down, telling us that if every email was confidential then none of them were.

BTW, I've also had to work with a lawyer in handing over work emails in a political investigation. And, all I will say on that is that emails vindicate as well as condemn.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

Nope. Not the radiologist. He was angry, pushy, and a bit of a bully, but he never threatened or even insinuated legal action.

Yes, your e-mail could be subject to a subpoena. That's a different matter from a FOIA request. IANAL, so I'm not sure about the specifics, but if somebody wants a subpoena, he (1) first has to have an existing legal action or criminal investigation and (2) has to persuade the court that he expects to find relevant information in the subpoenaed documents. The target of the subpoena usually has a chance to ask the court to narrow the request, or even quash it entirely, if she thinks the subpoena is too broad. And courts tend to take a dim view of lawyers who abuse subpoenas, so you're less likely to have to deal with a fishing expedition. Also, while third-party document subpoenas have been known to happen, chances are that if you are served with a document subpoena you are either a party to the litigation (and therefore should already have a lawyer) or a person of interest in the criminal investigation (in which case you should hire a lawyer if you don't already have one). If you have received a FOIA request, you generally don't have all of these protections, and there is a good chance that you don't have a lawyer or other imminent need for a lawyer.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

Anybody working with animals in research should also be very careful with their emails. I live in a state with a very open open-records law--requestors have gotten lots of information that they then turn over to animal rights organizations. We don't get to FOIA them back.

I once received a one time grant from Bayer for £40,000 for a small research project. (That wasn’t even enough to pay for a postdoc for a year.)

At current exchange rates, that would be a hair over $58,000/year...I know where I'm going to apply for a postdoc in a few years ;)

On the bright side, this article was the final reminder I needed to stop procrastinating and set up a personal, non-school-related e-mail, so for when you see this in moderation, Orac: this is the same Sarah A who's been commenting for a while now with a .edu address, and I promise this will be my last e-mail change.

I'm not entirely familiar with FOIA procedures. Who pays for the time involved in fulfilling the request? Is it a set rate?

Part of the FOIA should be that all subsequent use of the disclosed material must be made known to the parties who provided them, and the requester should be subject to FOIA in regard to any materials pertaining to the original request.

But then, if someone is up to something nefarious, who's to say that they'll actually provide full/complete information in such a case?

our PR director doesn’t like surprises

No PR director likes surprises.

A local animal rights organization is using FOIA to harass our county animal control director, a very nice young woman who has her entire heart in her work. Their end goal is to get her to resign and replace her with one of their own.

She pretty much has no time to do her job anymore, she's spending all her time answering FOIAs.

By shay simmons (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

#15 My apologies to the radiologist.

By Not a Troll (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

What is being expressed is concern about balancing the public’s right to know with the potential for the harassment of scientists.

There are two policy areas here:
1) What material can be subject to FOIA?
2) What can be done with information once it is no longer private?

Orac's post links the two, since pragmatically if the first is limited, abuse from the second is limited as well. But, as they're different things, either could be subject to policy change that would limit the ability of opponents to attack someone like Folta:
1) More material could be allowed to kept secret. [It ain't 'private' if you work for a publicly funded university.]
2) Restrictions could be placed on how 'public' information is disseminated or used.

'Fishing expeditions' are not abusive. All they yield is fish. Abuse comes from what people DO with the fish.
However, limiting either fish-finding or 'fish-throwing' would seriously undermine deeper principles of democratic government, and long legal precedent.

FOIA laws are but a small correction to the largely unconstitutional secrecy/classification laws that were passed in the early days of the Cold War, ostensibly to keep nuclear weapons secrets safe from Russkie agents like Ethel Rosenberg.

'Transparency' is simply the price of living in a democracy, and that will ALWAYS be abused, since we have the 1st Amendment, which gives very wide latitude to how people can use information. Just because abuse happens is not reason to let government or its employees hide things. We wouldn't want Bill Posey to be able to conceal his dealings with anti-vaxers, or Rick Snyder's gang to conceal what they've done in Flint. Nor would we want to limit any journalist's ability to publicize and criticize those things.

'Reasonable protections' already exist. One key principle in 1st Amendment law is "no prior restraint". We don't stop people from publishing BS, but once they do, they're subject to criminal or civil penalties if they lie, unjustly defame, or use information as an excuse to commit crimes. And, surely, harassment and making death threats are crimes.

The problem is that it's too easy for people to get away with them. Transparency is NOT a license to harass. Obviously, assholes and partisans can and will harass whether they have FOIA derived facts to distort as ammo, or just have to make sh!t up. The license to harass comes from weak enforcement of existing criminal statutes, and the deeply undemocratic nature of civil law that favors the party with the most money to hire lawyers.

I'll play devil's advocate and say Folta's retreat was a GOOD day for science advocacy. Science advocates aren't going to get anywhere in the public sphere unless they play smart. Folta screwed-up big-time, and his tale serves as a textbook for what NOT to do. (What eventually sunk him wasn't the Monsanto money, but his naive – and arrogant – attempt to blow off his critics.) Nor are science advocates going to get anywhere of the proponents of pseudo-science receive the same sort of 'balance' Orac wishes Folta had received. And they would. I don't want limits on what Orac can find out about NCCAM, or what he can say about what he finds.

And in the wake of Flint, I actually find the idea of 'balance' here kind of obscene...

Those same FOIA requests found no money, but, gasp, a meeting of minds in emails exchanged between Calestous Juma and representatives of Monsanto and other Ag companies. That was enough for accusations of undisclosed conflict of interest by Juma in the pro-organic press and blogs. I'm sure that even if Folta did not have that $25,000 grant, his emails would have been used to tar and feather him for the same reasons used to pillory Juma.
As an aside, at the height of the abuse against Kevin Folta, I looked at postings on the Gainsville Craigslist at least daily so I could report abuse aimed at Dr. Folta. Not only was his university contact information listed but his home phone, address and the names of graduate students and posted for those who wanted to harass him. Some of the posting were direct threats of violence towards him, his family and students. It was the modern version of calling on a mob to grab their pitchforks.

By Verna Lang (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

‘Fishing expeditions’ are not abusive. All they yield is fish. Abuse comes from what people DO with the fish.

You know, sadmar, I don't think I've seen you write anything that made me want to scream "Bullshit!" at you quite so loud.

We wouldn’t want Bill Posey to be able to conceal his dealings with anti-vaxers, or Rick Snyder’s gang to conceal what they’ve done in Flint.

Ah, but they already can do just that! FOIA doesn't apply in Michigan to the governor or any legislator (I know because I checked once when I was contemplating filing a FOIA request regarding my state senator), nor does it apply to the legislative branch at the federal level:.

http://www.nationaljournal.com/congress/2015/03/15/You-Cant-Read-Congre…

You're not going to get Rep. Posey's e-mails. They only reason they got Snyder's chief of staff is because he's not an elected official.

You see, there's the problem. When I see someone like Thacker, who used to work for Sen. Grassley, calling for "transparency," it's a great example of "transparency for you but not for me."

‘Fishing expeditions’ are not abusive. All they yield is fish. Abuse comes from what people DO with the fish.

Yep, not abusive at all, except for the part where frivolous requests waste the target's time and money, cause undue stress, etc. (much as other harassing activities are abuse).

FOIA requests in good faith are not abusive, sadmar, but frivolous fishing expeditions can be. Find some fish you can use to cause trouble for the target? Great! Don't find any fish? Try again. And again. And again, until your target provides something you can use for abuse or they get so stressed/fed up with it that they cave in to you pressure and cease advocacy activities. Frivolous FOIA requests are not that different from frivolous defamation suits.

Sadmar @ #22
Those fishing expeditions are indeed abusive. They take resources away from the job at hand, and in my state, we can only charge them for copies of the material and for the lowest common denominator of salary (i.e., not MY salary) for the time it takes to find responsive documents. Some searches take months, with many hundreds of hours of time spent (wasted). I can't just hand over all my emails, because I have subjects that are indeed not public (e.g., personnel matters, proprietary matters, student privacy) so somebody (me) has to comb through all my documents and delete/redact the things that are not considered public. That takes time that we (the institution) are NOT compensated for by the entities requesting the information.

One thing to remember in the US is that FOIA with respect to Universities is often state law. Kevin had the unfortunate luck of living in a state with a particularly generous FOIA law that offered him no real protection.

Kevin was not wrong for accepting the grant from Monsanto, his mistake was to claim that his research was not funded by Monsanto. While accurate (the grant was for outreach activities not research) this left him open to accusations. He would have been better served to have added a rider to his previous comment mentioning the funding for outreach.

I was staggered when I discovered that in the PLoS blog by Thacker and Seife they made up a story that an e-mail written by Folta titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” showed Folta advising Monsanto how to defeat a GM labeling campaign in California. In fact none of this was true. Folta didn't author that title on the e-mail - it actually came from a campaign group in Colorado. Folta didn't advise Monsanto on how to defeat a labeling campaign, but in fact criticised their activities and the e-mail was about Folta addressing a group in Colorado, not California. This abundantly showed that even if you e-mails were all above board, the likes of Thacker will simply make something up. You cannot win, so you should just be prepared to tough it out.

Also don't think that just because you are using a private e-mail address that it is not subject to FOIA. In many jurisdictions it is, as there may be something that is associated with your work in there. While I have several private e-mail addresses, I have just given up and taken to the tactic of deleting all old outgoing e-mails that I don't absolutely have to keep.

By Chris Preston (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

#Todd: Re FOIA:
A. As Orac says, only applies to administrative agencies. Federal for federal agencies, state for state. What that means is that state details - including recouping costs - vary among states.

B. On the Federal level, after several changes, costs can be recouped - see 52 U.S.C. 552 (a) (4) (A). There are, however, limits. This is the very short version.

And yes, FOIA requests can be abused. I completely agree with Orac's description of the problem and danger.
I'm not sure there's a great way to limit that, though, without too high a cost in terms of government transparency. FOIA is already hard to use, and we do want transparency. Some ideas were raised here -like a modified SLAPP. I think writing it without sacrificing much would, however, be difficult.

I like Emily Willingham's detailed discussion of this dilemma. http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2015/11/21/is-the-freedom-o…

By Dorit Reiss (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

@ Chris Preston

Kevin was not wrong for accepting the grant from Monsanto, his mistake was to claim that his research was not funded by Monsanto.

I agree (and yeah, easy for me to say in front of a computer screen).
I will insist that we stop pretending that, because the money was for travel expenses, it doesn't count. Money is money, it makes your life easier. And Folta did get money from Monsanto. As such, any gift has to be mentioned as potential COI. You would look tainted, but at least you wouldn't look like you were hiding it.

In terms of public reputation/scientific creed, Julius Caesar's motto comes to mind: Caesar's wife should not be suspected. You have to concern yourself as to how your acts will be perceived by your opponents (not to the point of inaction, I would admit).
And Roman historians will know that Caesar was hiding behind this pious assertion to get a pretext to repudiate his wife and marry a more politically-worthy one (in other words, no matter that one does, the like of Thacker will find something - that's depressing).

I was staggered when I discovered that in the PLoS blog by Thacker and Seife they made up a story

Yeah, if it is the same Thacker, the NYT article was not his first foray into the sh!t-excavation business.

By Helianthus (not verified) on 11 Jan 2016 #permalink

Chris: "Kevin was not wrong for accepting the grant from Monsanto, his mistake was to claim that his research was not funded by Monsanto. While accurate (the grant was for outreach activities not research) this left him open to accusations. He would have been better served to have added a rider to his previous comment mentioning the funding for outreach."

As a prominent defender of genetic modification technology, it was a big mistake for him to utilize any funding from Monsatan and have any contacts with company reps that could be twisted into claims he was advising the company on policy.

Anti-GMOers depend heavily on associating the technology in the public's mind with Evil Corporate Influence, hence the heavy emphasis on e-mail seizures. They can't win on the science, so personal smears are the order of the day. Giving them even meager ammunition helps their cause. And it doesn't help that much to point out their own, more severe COIs, when the target audience hearing charges and countercharges is likely just to throw up its hands and trust to "instinct" - "gee, I don't know if science is so good when it comes to food, natural sounds better".

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

"As a prominent defender of genetic modification technology, it was a big mistake for him to utilize any funding from Monsatan"
Best misspelling ever. Or worst.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

@ Julian Frost:

Being that it was DB, I doubt that the spelling was accidental.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

FOIA is a good concept but in practice it leaves a lot to be desired. As Orac mentioned, some of the higher ups in government just exempted themselves from it so they no longer care. For lower levels (and universities most of all) they get no protection and if they are involved in any contentious area (climate science, GMO, vaccines, etc.) they can expect o have FOIA abused just like in this example. When I used to teach students I gave them a piece of advice that I will repeat. Never write anything in email that you wouldn't want to be seen on the front page of a newspaper or read aloud in court. Or that you would be ashamed of your mother seeing. I think this is applicable to pretty much all online communication. Anything can be hacked, the internet never forgets, and anyone can be doxed. If you embrace activism it is prudent to take as many precautions as possible but again anyone can be doxed. All it takes is pissing the wrong person off. And who hasn't pissed the wrong person off on the internet? I always find it very sad when those who are active on the behalf of science and reason get hounded out of the public sphere. It diminishes everyone and it makes the next activist that much less likely to step up and carry the torch. But as a mother of small children I can't say I don't understand why he bowed out. Some prices are too high to pay. I would like to say that no one would stoop to violence but I am not sure that they wouldn't. The crazies of whatever ideological stripe seem to come up with a justification to ruin the lives and livelihoods of those who disagree with them. It's not many more steps to overt actions that harm or kill. It is so sad really. The hate filled rhetoric and twisting of facts and reality to suit their own ends has real world consequences but that has never shut these idiots up. They seem blithely unconcerned that people are threatened, lose their jobs, fear for their loved ones safety, etc. Hate speech begins to justify actions based on that speech. The speakers seem not to care about that fact. Or they're some sort of sociopath. I am not sure which.

Places you can go fishing: the ocean, a lake, a stream (with proper permits).

Places you should not go fishing: toxic waste dump, your data, someone else's e-mails.

With e-mails as with data, you need to know what you're looking for before you head in. Precision hunting, not fishing.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

As a prominent defender of genetic modification technology, it was a big mistake for him to utilize any funding from Monsatan and have any contacts with company reps that could be twisted into claims he was advising the company on policy.

I disagree. I say this from experience. It does make life a little more complicated, but the reality is that you will be painted as in the pay of Monsanto anyway. If someone else at your University has ever accepted money from Monsanto or from a business that sells Monsanto products (i.e. seed companies) that will be enough. You are much better to be upfront about these things and be willing to explain why. The real problems arise when the appearance of something underhand can be manufactured.

Disclaimer. I once had a small grant from Monsanto in 2001-2004.

A number of years ago, I was invited to appear on a nationally televised debate about GM foods along with Jeffrey Smith and Judy Carman (of the pig stomach paper). In the lead up to the appearance, I was questioned by the program researcher about funding for my research and provided information about the level of funding from various sources including the agricultural companies. I then got a call from our research office, because the program researcher had contacted them to check.

The program was filmed in front of a live audience and the inevitable question came to me about research funding and I said something along the lines of "My program gets about 3/4 million dollars a year from farmers and some funding from a range of agricultural chemical companies that averages about 20 thousand dollars a year." Because I laid it out there, there was no follow up about how much of that money came from Monsanto (in fact none of it did).

When Judy Carman was asked the same question, she prevaricated. She stated some funding for her pig study (we didn't even know it was going to be a study on pigs at that stage, it was supposed to be mice) came from the WA Government, but then said the rest came from "Mom and Pop investors". The journalist turned on her and eventually winkled out the information that the Mom and Pop investors were actually Jeffrey Smith's organisation.

The end result, as one person told me a month or so later, is that I came off looking knowledgeable, honest and trustworthy even among the anti-GM people.

By Chris Preston (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

You can be "painted" as anything, Chris, but it's not smart to hand them the can and brush.

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 12 Jan 2016 #permalink

FOIA is a good concept but in practice it leaves a lot to be desired. As Orac mentioned, some of the higher ups in government just exempted themselves from it so they no longer care. For lower levels (and universities most of all) they get no protection and if they are involved in any contentious area (climate science, GMO, vaccines, etc.) they can expect [to] have FOIA abused just like in this example.

As Dorit mentioned in comment 30, freedom-of-information requests operate at an administrative level – it wasn't Folta who received it, it was the university. Sure, it was targeted at him, but there's a difference. I'm really not sure how it could be any other way in practical terms.

At the federal level, one can point to the Federal Tort Claims Act (basically, you have to sue the government rather than government employees) as an overarching discrepancy, but that's a reach.

I don't know what, if any, pushback there was from the University of Florida, but the asymmetry is intrinsic. An abuse-of-process ("anti-SLAPP") remedy was proposed above; taking it arguendo, whose while is it going to be worth? How would one even pursue such a counterclaim?

The nuts-and-bolts part is allocation of costs. I may be close to burying the lede, but hilarity has ensued.

^ All USian; I should have noted that at the outset.

No need to harass the scientists. They harass each other good enough, especially when an idea that is not consistent with the common thinking of the community pops out!!!! It takes years and hundred of proofs to convince and of course, nobody from the community will help nor question his own certainties.

No need to harass the scientists. They harass each other good enough

Because of course scientists are in the habit of doxxing and making death threats at each other.
How about you adress the subject of the article instead of making a completely inappropriate comparison ?

Speaking of grants, I didn't study at the local university but my hometown is small and the uni is large, I used to work in a publishing house that did textbooks so I know quite a few of the professors. Aaaaand, they're getting grants which are sometimes structured in a very idiotic way and if all the money is not spent, the universe would probably collapse, or so I guessed from the general dread.
Anyway, a decent sum had to be spent for a conference and/or workshop and the grant only allowed spending on lodging and venue rental while the organizers wanted to do it somehow so that there'd be stationery and food for the dirt poor postgrad students. There is a legit way of handling the situation - I'll rent the venue only with services provided and accidentally, the services provided are coffee, sandwiches and stationery. It's perfectly legal and common. However, a professor of statistics would and did put it as We need to get around the rules and obviously, someone could find fault in wording it this way.

I believe that a majority of researchers does have some personal integrity and that they try their best. Trying to control everyone, all the time might find someone at fault but it annoys the heck out of the (hopefully) majority of those good ones.

By kultakutri (not verified) on 21 Jan 2016 #permalink

"I will say something right here. Folta did screw up."

I'll say that too. I do thank you for seeing this as it is. I never thought that the radical anti-GMOers would go crazy over this. Not sure what I was thinking. To me, if I took bundles of Monsanto's money and threw it into a furnace, you'd think they'd be applauding. This was the same thing. The plan was to use corporate dollars to teach science. Nothing for personal use, nothing for research, just funds that would allow me to volunteer more time teaching communication strategies to scientists and students.

I totally see where I went wrong and have gone above-and-beyond to now be above question. I LOVE IT THERE. It is so wonderful to have every cent accounted for in a publicly visible (yet not required) place. I asked Paul Thacker to please evaluate my transparency and ask others to meet my standard. Crickets.

When they FOIA my 2015 records they won't find any real interaction with companies. The fact that any emails can be gathered for the asking and twisted in the major media has companies (and individuals) thinking about how they connect in different states.

Going forward I'm just going to do what I always did, do it on my personal funds (or appropriate public funds/donations) and do bigger acts of visible outreach. I think I have a much better focus and platform going forward, and learned a few lessons a hard way.

I do appreciate the coverage of how these important public records laws are being abused. I think the public is going to eventually see that, and I do think USRTK is starting to feel the backfire already.

By Kevin Folta (not verified) on 23 Jan 2016 #permalink