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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

An Important Public/Private Partnership Is Under Attack

(This article was originally posted on Forbes 8/31/15)

A scientist named Kevin Folta at the University of Florida has been one of a broader group of public researchers who have come under hostile, Freedom Of Information Act scrutiny with the goal of demonstrating “ties to industry.”  The implication is that any connection, particularly any financial connection, between academics and for-profit businesses is inappropriate.  Not only are the tactics of this effort reprehensible, the entire premise is wrong.  I would like to explain why Folta has been doing exactly the sort of job he was hired to do and that even much more significant public/private cooperation is completely aligned with the mission of ag schools.

A map showing the locations of Land Grant Institutions
There is a network of “Land Grant” colleges and Universities throughout the US that was first set up in the late 1800s through the Morrill Acts.  Their purpose was to focus on agriculture, science, military science and engineering. They became important centers of applied research which has been of great benefit for the global food supply.  These institutions have traditionally been part of a synergistic, public/private partnership for the discovery, testing and commercialization of innovations of value to the farming community.  They also educate future farmers, the specialized scientists and engineers who become the employees of ag-related businesses, and the future faculty.

Agricultural schools also serve the function of communicating with the vast majority of Americans who have no connection to farming except their dependency on it as consumers.  This is particularly true when it comes to the applications of biotechnology to crops.  Between low overall understanding of genetics, and the active dispersal of disinformation, public distrust in “GMO crops” stands as a barrier to the commercialization of genetic engineering solutions which would be very helpful for Florida farmers.  With broader public understanding of biotechnology, sweet corn growers might be able to plant the insect resistant lines that would save them many sprays/season.  Instead grocery retailers and processors are unwilling to risk consumer reaction.  The Florida citrus industry might be able to be saved from a deadly new disease that threatens its very existence if the juice companies believed they could explain the solution to their consumers.  The Florida tomato industry could have a solution to a problematic bacterial disease based on a pepper gene moved to tomato, but that would require downstream customers in the fast food industry believing that consumers would accept it.  Thus, it makes perfect sense for a qualified public scientist in Florida to engage in a conversation with non-farmers on this topic for the benefit of the farming community he was hired to serve.  Kevin Folta not only communicates the science himself, he helps to train other scientists to do a better job of public engagement. 

The “smoking gun” in the FOIA campaign has been that Monsanto Company contributed $25,000 to the University (not to Folta) to support that science communications training program.  It is perfectly logical for them to support such a program and anyone who thinks that such a contribution would alter the science-driven content of the program does not understand the independent nature of people who pursue careers in science.


Our week in Kauai culminated in an emotionally
charged hearing of the County Council attended by
5000 people out of a population of 55,000

I once spent an entire week in Kauai with Folta where I got to witness his science communications skill and passion.  We were participating in public forums attempting the address a major, fear-mongering campaign which sought to drive the biotech seed nurseries off the island.  I saw how well Folta was able to communicate the basics of the science and how hard he worked to meet people where they were – even the most antagonistic individuals.  Folta accepted no money for himself or for the University for that effort, unlike the substantial speaking fees that were given to the various anti-GMO luminaries who were flown in by the activists with substantial funding from mainland anti-technology groups.

Unfortunately, the nasty, defamatory campaign against Folta has advanced to the point of threats against his family and laboratory.  The University has elected to transfer the $25,000 to their community food bank in hopes of defusing the controversy.  That may be a logical move, but unfortunately its demonstrates to the broader academic community that you can be subjected to nasty attacks for doing things that are fully appropriate for your job.  It shows scientists that in the Internet age, there is no real protection from this sort of modern Inquisition.  I know Folta well enough to be confident that he won’t be intimidated into silence, but I am concerned about a broader, chilling effect that could even extend beyond public outreach activities.

There are actually far more direct, but still legitimate and beneficial connections between public institution researchers and companies involved in agriculture.  Applied and even basic scientific research often leads to innovations that are patented by the university and then licensed to a company with the necessary skills and resources for commercialization.  In this arrangement the farmers get the advances, the companies get new business revenue, and the university gets royalty income that strengthens its ability to do more teaching and research.  Companies (large and small) also often bring their innovations to the appropriate university experts for evaluation.  They pay for the time and resources that the university needs to conduct the tests, and the grower community looks to those tests as an objective evaluation of new products – often in side-by-side comparisons with products from competing companies. The Land Grant colleges were designed to serve the grower base that benefits from synergistic ties between the public and private sector.  To assume that this can’t be done with integrity is both unwarranted and counter-productive.

The Freedom Of Information Act was designed to uncover wrongdoing in the public sector.  It was not designed as a means of harassing public scientists for doing exactly what they were hired to do.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to write me at savage.sd@gmail.com