Academic freedom, conflicts of interest, and…Monsanto.

My initial impetus for starting this blog came from some interactions on social media I had when I expressed my support for biotechnology in agriculture. I’ll describe that support more clearly at a later time, but a key component of it is that I trust science, the scientific process, and the work conducted by public-sector scientists especially to acquire knowledge and utilize it to make our world better. I find it extremely frustrating when good public scientist’s credibility is called into question over perceived conflicts of interest often stemming from grant funding or collaboration with private industry on projects. Many don’t realize that university scientists are encouraged, and often expected, to involve the private sector in research projects, and there is a very good oversight process though Sponsored Programs Administrations, Institutional Review Boards,  Research Protections Offices and the like to ensure that ethical guidelines are followed in the course of research. Of course, the peer-review process itself serves as another layer to ensure that scientists are doing their jobs professionally and objectively.
A recently popular tactic among the anti-GMO movement has been to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to harass scientists and conduct fishing expeditions through their emails to shake out any detail they can grab onto to further their narrative. In many cases, this behavior has resulted in dragging good people’s reputations through the dirt without cause. This has been written about in several articles that I won’t elaborate on but will present here , here, here, and here. Sometimes these requests turn up real conflicts of interest among the anti-GMO crowd though, so it’s a tricky sword to wield.
I don’t typically do the kind of controversial work that might trigger a FOIA request, but I have found that in my very few instances of coming out in public in favor of biotechnology, almost every time my independence is questioned, and I am soon accused of working for Monsanto. However, unlike activists, bloggers, and private citizens, it is actually customary for people in my profession to post every tidbit of their professional life in an online Curriculum vitae. Mine can easily be found on my faculty profile page, and while it may not always be immediately up-to-date (I update it several times per month to reflect my latest work), it always pretty close and should give folks a picture of the work I do and how I fund it.
So with that said and everyone having had a look at what I do for work, let me throw out my one and only explanation to the “do I work for Monsanto” question, taken directly from the social media post that raised it:

…The closest thing I have to Monsanto funding is matching support for a grant I received to study organic management practices to mitigate apple replant disease. The manufacturer of one of the fungal isolates I am testing has provided matching funds to conduct soil nematode assessments which were too expensive to include in my grant. That company, Novozymes, Inc., entered into a distribution partnership with Monsanto BioAg in January of the year after I submitted the grant (November 2013). Never have I been contacted by Monsanto in regards of this work or any other work I am involved with. That hardly makes me a shill. Rather, as a plant scientist, I’d suggest that I’m fairly well-informed of the issues around crop breeding and production…

Anyone who views my CV will also see that I have never conducted research with any GM crop, that the majority of my scientific career has included research on organic production systems (including my M.S. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation), and that I work on applied projects to solve real problems identified by Vermont farmers. I would never risk my integrity as a researcher for a $9,000 grant (out of over $400,000 attained at that time) that doesn’t go into my pocket, but pays for technicians and research costs. That’s just not the way that anyone who works in an academic research environment conducts business, in fact, the culture is very much against it. Here‘s a great blog piece that illustrates the difference between disclosed conflicts of interest and scientific misconduct that explains why we need to worry less about the former and more about the latter.

So now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk.