Using FOIA to Read Scientists’ Emails

Journalists and activists use the Freedom of Information Act to expose academics’ relationships with industry.

By Kerry Grens | September 8, 2015

PIXABAY, SONELLast year, it was Michael Mann and “Climategate.” Now it’s Kevin Folta and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In both cases, journalists or activists are using federal law to peek at professors’ emails, stirring the debate about transparency in academia.

The latest saga began earlier this year when a nonprofit organization called US Right to Know requested—and received—Folta’s correspondence with agricultural giant Monsanto through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allows for public release of documents from federal agencies. Folta studies fruit crop genomics, and the emails revealed that Monsanto had provided funds for Folta’s public communication outreach project.

“This is a great 3rd-party approach to developing the advocacy that we’re looking to develop,” Michael Lohuis, the director of crop biometrics at Monsanto, wrote in a 2014 email to Folta, The New York Times—which also requested the correspondence—reported last week.

Folta told the New York Times that “nobody tells me what to say,” but that he understood why others could perceive the hand of industry guiding his communication.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has decried such requests for correspondence as an abuse of the law. “As our 2015 report ‘Freedom to Bully’ shows, open records requests are increasingly being used to harass and intimidate scientists and other academic researchers, or to disrupt and delay their work.” One concern is that people who obtain email correspondence could select scientists’ statements and use them out of context. On Twitter, for instance, Folta called the New York Times’s article a “cherry-picking fest.”

Others, particularly those outside scientific academia, disagree. In a PLOS Biologue essay published last month (August 13), journalists Paul Thacker and Charles Seife wrote that open records laws are important for rooting out scientific misconduct (their essay was subsequently retracted, but the authors still stand behind it). “So long as scientists receive government money, they are subject to government oversight; so long as their work affects the public, journalists and other watchdogs are simply doing their jobs when they seek out possible misconduct and questionable practices that could threaten the public interest,” Thacker and Seife wrote.

“Dialogue over GM foods is highly polarizing and emotional, making rational evaluation of the current situation extremely challenging,” Alan Levinovitz, a Chinese philosophy and religion professor at James Madison University, wrote in Wired in February. “At this point, it is essential that scientists, academics, and policy-makers unconnected with the agri-chemical industry examine the relevant information—all of which is available online—and state their conclusions clearly and publicly. The status of the debate over GMOs, and nothing less than the future of academic freedom, depends on what they have to say.”

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Avatar of: Lizzz


Posts: 12

September 9, 2015

Climate change, GMOs, abortuses used for research, and other controversial science topics are particularly subject to political communications manipulation by any interested party. But to judge by mainstream media coverage, government funding is presumed to have no corrupting power whatsoever.

From Eisenhower's Farewell Address (right after the military-industrial complex paragraph, but less well known):

"The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."


Avatar of: RG-acgtu


Posts: 1

September 9, 2015

I found this article to be disappointing.  I would expect a bit more research on the issue from a magazine titled “The Scientist”

While you mention the rather tenuous connection between Monsanto and the outreach program that Dr. Folta participates in, you failed to mention the nonprofit US Right to Know is funded by Organic interests.  It leaves the impression that they are neutral when in fact they have point of view.

As for Thacker and Seife you go out of your way to point out that they still stand behind their article and only hyperlink to the retraction.  You really should have mentioned in the body why their article was retracted as well.

>“The Fight over Transparency: Round Two,” was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines. PLOS has therefore decided to remove the post, while leaving the comments on it intact.<

Personally I think Seife and Thacker are a bit hypocritical on this issue.  They point out the misuse of FOIA to harasses climate scientists.  Then later use those same tactics in an attempt to sully a scientist (later named as Dr. Folta) with a rather tenuous link to Monsanto via a science out reach program.  Then they characterize that science outreach as “educational talks on GMOs” which is disingenuous at best. 

I can see why PLOS retracted their piece.

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