Lost in Science Translation: The Industry Taint

Several months ago, I was approached by Scientific American to participate in a panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Here’s how the event was first described to me via email on January 20:

We will be assembling a panel of diverse voices from the private sector, news media and academia to discuss the current realities of science reporting and the challenges of effectively communicating science-related information to the public.

This sounded appealing. John Rennie, the former editor-in-chief of Scientific American and a highly respected science journalist, was listed as the panel moderator. The forum would explore and debate “the media’s responsibility for the fair reporting of sensitive subjects,” such as GMOs, climate change and childhood immunization.

These are topics I have reported on as a freelance journalist. I have also held stints where my focus was to critically analyze media coverage of climate change (see here) and GMOs (see here and here.) So I felt qualified to participate in the Scientific American panel.

But there was one catch. The event was to be sponsored by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), which is described on its website as “the world’s largest trade association representing biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and in more than 30 other nations.” 

In an ideal world, holding worthy public events (let’s not even get into annual conferences) would be cost-free. Nobody would have to pay for a meeting space, travel and accommodation expenses for speakers, etc. This is not a rationale for unconditional corporate or foundation sponsorship. We all know the deal: Funders put up the dollars to stage an event or conference and in return they get the publicity that comes with having their names associated it.

Then there is the flourishing new business model that all major media properties are tapping into:

Despite the inherent risks, events have become a key part of the contemporary publishing model.

Yup. And all your favorite magazines and media outlets are cashing in.

Still, not all events are equal. It also behooves any serious journalistic outfit not to compromise itself while chasing after those corporate dollars. So for me to agree to participate in the Scientific American event (which I eventually did), I had to be reassured that SciAm was in the drivers seat, not the corporate sponsor. Another major selling point for me was John Rennie’s involvement. I trust and respect John. I know he’s not going to hitch himself to something that might undermine his or SciAm’s journalistic integrity. So I got on board.

Then a curveball got thrown our way. No, make that a stinkbomb. Some weeks ago I learned that the corporate sponsor would be GMO Answers, not BIO. As soon I heard this, on March 3, I dashed off an email to John expressing my dismay: “Any connection to GMO Answers will taint the important conversation held that day at the National Press Club.”

(It turned out that John hadn’t known of this development, either.)

I continued: “Just to refresh, GMO Answers is a PR website run by Ketchum on behalf of Monsanto and other biotechnology corporations. I wrote about their role in my Nature exclusive here in August. They were also featured in Eric Lipton’s front page [NYT] story a month later.” I asked if there was a way to disassociate ourselves from GMO Answers.

I also said in ensuing communications to John and others involved that I had recently been subjected to a vicious and ongoing character assassination campaign by anti-GMO activists (to cite just a few examples) and that I would pull out of the event if GMO Answers “remained connected in any way.”

John was sympathetic and also similarly disturbed at the bait-and-switch tactic that made GMO Answers the corporate sponsor. [UPDATE: This is incorrect, says the publisher of Scientific American. There was no “bait-and-switch.” See below for his clarification] He resolved to figure out what was going on with the sponsorship and report back. A week later, not much had changed, except another sponsor had signed on (Johnson & Johnson). But John did assure myself and the other participating journalists that the publisher “is adamant that if there’s going to be an event about the problems of science communication, it’s going to be transparent about how it came together, about who is involved both on stage and behind the scenes, and what the relevant issues are. And GMO Answers’ own breaches of trust absolutely have to be part of this discussion, including the ways in which an event like this can be co-opted.” If the parent trade group–BIO–wasn’t on board with this, John said, then SciAm “will walk away.”

This unflinching stance made me rethink my position. I wanted to be part of that public discussion–particularly the part that told the geniuses behind GMO Answers just how badly they continue to undermine their stated goal, which is “to make information about GMOs in food and agriculture easier to access and understand.”

Last year, I wrote a long post called, “On GMOs, Industry, Activists, Scientists, and Journalism.” Here’s a passage about industry and the GMO Answers website:

“As a journalist, I never paid any attention to the [GMO Answers] site because of the industry connection. If I need answers to a science question about GMOs, that’s the last place I’d look. It didn’t matter that there were scientists I respected who had contributed to the site. In my mind, it was automatically tainted by its association with the biotech industry, which has incentive to promote GMOs in the best light. It didn’t matter that industry and mainstream science on GMOs were aligned on the safety issue. What mattered was a history of corporate misdeeds that included considerable efforts to muzzle or play down legitimate scientific concerns about consumer safety.”

That legacy is hard to overcome. Even harder when new cases of devious corporate behavior keep coming to light. Some industries are viewed with greater suspicion than others, as NYU medical ethicist Jennifer Mill noted last year:

The American public massively distrusts the pharmaceutical industry; the industry is ranked barely above tobacco companies and below Wall Street in terms of its honesty, ethics, and trustworthiness.

Before leaving on a bus to DC yesterday (ahead of the event), I taught my NYU undergraduate journalism class. I told students about the panel I was soon to participate in and also mentioned the sponsors. What did they think of it? A number of them shook their head in disapproval. I told them that I was paying my own to-and-from travel costs and was not getting paid to participate. (None of the journalists on the panel are receiving an honorarium or stipend.)  The students weren’t sold. Then I showed a flier of the event on the overhead screen and scrolled down to where GMO Answers and Johnson & Johnson were listed as the sponsors. “The optics look bad,” one of them said, gravely. “I don’t think you can get past that.”

Yeah, that’s what I’ve been worried about all along. But I want so badly to have a conversation about why that is, and I’ve been reassured we will.

**This is the first of a two part post. The next one will discuss how GMO opponents see and respond to the National Press Club event hosted by Scientific American.

Clarification: Jeremy Abbate, the publisher of SciAm, says that GMO Answers “was intended as a sponsoring partner from the start. It was a miscommunication. The parent group had already given us the GMOA logo, but it was not until later that we placed it on marketing materials. While this was indeed an unfortunate mix-up, it truly was not an intent to hide that brand or the sponsoring partner.”

UPDATE: Numerous folks on Twitter who inhabit the ag biotech space asked why I took such umbrage with GMO Answers being a sponsor but seemed fine with the trade group. For example, Andrew Kniss, a University of Wyoming professor of weed biology and ecology tweeted:

It’s a fair question. So let me explain. To start, I wasn’t exactly thrilled that a GMO industry trade group was first identified as the corporate sponsor. But at least this was an actual entity. And a clearly defined one. GMO Answers, by contrast, is an industry initiative, a website run by a PR company. So there’s an important distinction to be made, I contend, between the parent trade organization and a website operated by a PR agency at the behest of biotech companies. I get that the trade organization’s mission is to promote its industry, but at least you know who and what they are. With GMO Answers, there’s no acknowledgement that it’s a PR run operation. Additionally, given the bad publicity the website endured last year, and the deep suspicion it engenders in anti-GMO circles, I can see why those who fund it would want to have the site associated with a hallowed institution like Scientific American.

Would I have preferred that the event had diverse sponsorship, which might have included, in addition to industry, academia, a foundation, or professional journalism organization? Of course. I’m surprised it didn’t, given the prestigious venue and all-star line up of scientists that were recruited. But I don’t know much about this world of custom media. I have no idea how such events are conceived or what it takes to attract sponsors. I can only speculate that this particular event, with the inclusion of GMO Answers, perhaps presented certain sponsorship challenges, for the aforementioned reasons.

That said, I don’t regret participating. There needs to be more forums like it that explore the thorny industry issues that too often dog science communication and science journalism. An honest, constructive and sometimes uncomfortable dialogue on such issues took place today at the Scientific American event. That such a worthwhile conversation was made possible because of problematic corporate sponsors is an irony I am well aware of. Kudos to the publisher, Jeremy Abbate, and the moderator John Rennie, for their deft handling of a very fraught affair.


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