Anti-GMO Group Seeks Emails from University Scientists

Earlier this week I learned that a dozen public sector scientists working in the field of biotechnology were hit with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from a California-based group opposed to GMO foods. I spoke with many of the targeted scientists and also with the anti-GMO activist who filed the document requests. My story will appear in the next issue of Science, a magazine/journal published weekly on Thursdays.

But the article has just been posted online at the Science website. Shortly after the piece went live, I was notified of this press release by the group that filed the document requests.

I have additional reporting on this developing story. So stay tuned. Meanwhile, I’ll post (below) any updates or related media coverage.

UPDATE: Here is a PDF of the freedom of information request sent to Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois. (He gave his permission.) It is *nearly* identical to the requests sent to all the other scientists. [*Nearly* was inserted after this sentence was written.]

On Twitter, Andrew Revkin wonders about the similarity to a previous controversial episode that rocked the climate science community:

UPDATE: Kevin Folta, one of the scientists who received a Freedom of Information request, has posted a heartfelt response.

29 Responses to “Anti-GMO Group Seeks Emails from University Scientists”

  1. mem_somerville says:

    Yeah, and people wonder why more public scientists don’t participate in outreach activities.


    I really hope the other science communities will recognize the larger issue here and support the folks in biotech. It could be vaccines, stem cells, or anything else some interest group opposes.

  2. Buddy199 says:

    Next, hounding scientists at their homes the way these thugs do to political contributors they don’t like.

  3. Tom Scharf says:

    If a business owner in the private sector wants to examine your business e-mails he has every right to do so, without a FOI request. There is no expectation of privacy.

    Scientists in the public sector should be answerable to the public. They are not special, they are government employees like every other government employee. They need to be held accountable to the level everyone else is. FOI requests are routinely made by the press.

    To the extent that this may be harassment, then it should go through the normal channels. The intent of the requester should be irrelevant in whether it is granted. There are very legitimate reasons why we have FOI laws.

    This blew up in climate science because Phil Jones and company decided to subvert the process by deleting e-mails after a request was made because they didn’t like the intent of requesters. As with all things of this nature, the cover up was *** much worse *** than anything the e-mails allegedly contained. It effectively ended Phil Jone’s career.

    The last thing government scientists want to do is make the same mistakes that were made in climate science. I cannot fathom what could possibly be in those e-mails that would be damaging.

    Simple compliance will win the day.

  4. Jay Currie says:

    Worked for the gay marriage lobby.

  5. mem_somerville says:

    I can’t speak for the scientists who got the FOIAs, but Kevin Folta describes how “simple” compliance is far from simple. It’s costly, invasive, and like to end up as cherry-picked accusations even when there’s no there there.

    When there’s no smoking gun, of course, that will only be evidence of cover up anyway. I’ve already seen people conclude that this mere request is evidence of wrong-doing.

    I am eager for the Union of Concerned Scientists and the AAUP to come to the legal aid of these folks though, they way they have for climate scientists.

  6. Bill C says:

    At least in the case of UCS, do you think they will? Is it on their radar screen?

  7. mem_somerville says:

    I don’t know–we aren’t exactly on speaking terms. But I pinged them on twitter and G+. I think it will be very telling if they ignore this.

  8. JH says:

    Lets remember who worked to get these laws enacted (liberals and environmental groups) and who has used them most to harass government officials in the past (liberals and environmental groups).

    FOIA in general is ridiculously invasive and should be dramatically curtailed. Nonetheless, as long as it’s on the books, Fed and state supported scientists are subject to it just like everyone else.

    Pulling quotes out of context is nothing new. There’s no reason it should be any more or less damaging or problematic just because it’s from an email.

    Everyone involved should share their info immediately and put this behind them. When that’s done, some sort of reasonable standard should be put in place to prevent blanket requests in the future.

  9. Carson says:

    Really? How many scientists had their reputation tarnished. were fired from their jobs or threatened with a demotion by Universities with strong ties to biotech companies? If these scientists were conducting their business in an ethical way then they have nothing to fear.

  10. Chris Preston says:

    Really? How many scientists had their reputation tarnished. were fired from their jobs or threatened with a demotion by Universities with strong ties to biotech companies?


  11. DavidAppell says:

    Being “answerable to the public” does not mean having to share every utterance ever made by anyone.

    This is clearly an intimition attempd. I highly doubt T. Scharf would be happy with anyone and everyone fishing through his emails.

    This will simply drive more scientists onto private email exchanges. I’d have done that already, if I were one of them.

    PS: Wonder what we’d find in David Legates emails at the University of Delaware?

  12. DavidAppell says:

    Please supply evidence to support your claim that “liberals and environmental groups” where the primary advocates for freedom of information acts.

  13. Tom says:

    Thanks for the heads up. Must stop signing my emails “Glory to Monsanto!” from now on.

  14. Bill C says:


  15. Joshua says:

    ==> “Lets remember who worked to get these laws enacted (liberals and environmental groups) ”

    David Appell’s request for evidence notwithstanding, lets break this down a bit, shall we?

    “This use of FOIA is an affront to open scientific inquiry. These blanket requests are fishing trips, trolling for out-of-context statements that can be misconstrued to pursue activist agendas. This has nothing to do with the science! This entire approach was created by activists who a dreaming of bringing us back to the dark ages, of trying to starve poor children in Africa.

    But hey, we might as well do it too until someone forces us to stop!!!”


  16. Carson says:

    Well Chris, you need to do your research. Arpad Pasztai was fired for his research that showed GMOs were risky.

  17. Carson says:

    Who are the political contributors you’re talking about?

  18. Robert Howd says:

    I’d say that GE Seralini’s anti-GMO articles have certainly tarnished his reputation, and possibly that of his co-authors – well-deserved, of course. The retraction of the 2012 article, and response of French science organizations, can’t have helped. (“Six French national academies (of Agriculture, Medecine, Pharmacy, Science, Technology and veterinarians) issued a joint statement – “an extremely rare event in French science”– condemning the study and the journal that published it. The joint statement dismissed the study as ‘a scientific non-event’.)

  19. Tom Scharf says:

    You can’t get a dump of every utterance. The FOI requests have rules and requests are routinely denied, as we have learned.

    Even if it is a blatant intimidation effort, freedom of information means just what is says. I don’t support such an effort for intimidation purposes, but I also don’t want the public sector trying to guess motives and deciding accordingly. This could be easily abused to hide evidence of wrongdoing.

    If anything, ClimateGate has desensitized the public in what to expect in e-mails like this.

  20. Robert Howd says:

    “Risky” is a great overstatement. Pasztai was fired for “improper communication” of unpublished work. The studies demonstrated statistically significant thickening of gut epithelium, but not the growth retardation and immune dysfunction that he claimed in the infamous interview. The career of his coworker, Stanley Ewen, was also affected.

  21. Tom Scharf says:

    The definition of insanity is….

    It would be a mistake to follow the path of climate science here. I should hope somebody learned something along the way. If you have nothing to hide, but yet you still want to hide it, it doesn’t look good.

    A concerted effort to hide the information will look exactly like a cover up is in place. And once people think you are hiding something…they tend to find it anyway. Then it really looks bad.

    Release the minimum information as required, take the hit in a few days news cycle for the worst there is, and move on.

  22. Tom Scharf says:

    As for Folta’s response.

    To a certain extent it reads as: “FOI laws are for other people, not me”

    I sympathize with this situation and have little doubt that the requests are going to picked apart and made to look as bad as possible. While Folta may know he is a good guy and probably is, US-RTK believes exactly the opposite and have the right to use whatever means are at their disposal to “expose” the government conspiracy to cover up the evil that is GMO. The more a scientist wants to reject this request, the more I want to look, it’s the human condition.

    Anybody who gets a sufficiently high enough profile or a company that makes enough money will be attacked by lawyers. Consider it a depressing sign of success.

    ClimateGate was a disaster, it’s a bit novel to see this as a positive moment for Climate Science.. All those quotes came from hacked e-mails, not FOI requests. Some of the most damaging ones were about subverting the FOI process for goodness sakes.

  23. Stu says:

    The only immediately obvious ‘echo’ to the climategate event is the word ‘FOIA” itself. In climategate the FOI issue was primarily focused on the mystery of why language in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report was altered from what was sent to external reviewers. In this latest case it’s simply about weeding out some assumed ties to ‘big Ag’.

    If it actually needed pointing out, here’s another big difference-

    “The first thing I did was pick up a phone, call Gary Ruskin, and say, “What can I tell you?””

  24. RobertWager says:

    If the Pusztai work was so good, why has no other group (including the vast anti-GMO industry) been able to reproduce it?

  25. StopGMO says:

    Why should it be? It was done right the first time.

  26. Chris Preston says:

    In fact he wasn’t. He was already past retirement age and his contract was not renewed because he broke the rules of his contract in speaking to the press about things he did not have approval to speak about.

    Oh and Are you sure you want to use that conspiracy website as the source of your information?

  27. JH says:

    David you’re like the sky dragons demanding evidence that CO2 causes warming.

    That’s just what you do david. You demand evidence of everything you disagree with and then you reject the evidence. You’re a classic warmist.

  28. DavidAppell says:

    So, you don’t have any evidence — right?

  29. DavidAppell says:

    Do you mean you were surprised that the personal emails of scientists included gossip and snickering?

    Can I have access to your emails, say, those over the last month? I promise they will be enough to crucify you online.

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