I had just completed a 10 kilometer run with a local running club, as I try to do every Labor Day. Every year I get a little bit slower, a price I’m happy to pay for being lucky enough to be able to run another year! At 10:30 am I sat down on my day off to do something that I rarely ever do—write a personal account, a narrative of something that is going on in my professional life. 

I’m a Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of California-Davis, researching and teaching about animal genomics and biotechnology. As a scientist, my training is to write in the dry, succinct 3rd person. However, today I’m reflecting on my personal experience with the recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests targeting public sector scientists and communicators who are engaged in the public discussion about GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

I am writing this in the first person because there is something deeply intrusive about a third party requesting years’ worth of email correspondence. I guess I am not alone in academia in keeping all of my email correspondence, personal and professional, in one account—my university account. In the absence of a better solution, my email correspondence is quite honestly my somewhat disorganized “filing system”.

At 51, I am not an Internet native but a reluctant web immigrant. I remember days when I did not have to constantly respond to emails, where I could actually plan my days to write manuscripts or conduct a research experiment. I remember when work finished when you left the office—no email, no social media. I am old enough to remember when email was first introduced into UC Davis in the early 1990s, and the university provided its employees with a free account. You used to have to pay for email accounts. I even did a course called “Computer Appreciation” with punch cards in high school. No wonder my kids think I am a dinosaur.

My single, lone Outlook account and calendar house my doctor’s appointments, entries for my kids’ reports and high school events, flight details and reminders for my many and varied outreach activities, emails to my family, and, of course, correspondence to colleagues, students and the varied clientele I work with. This includes many farmers and farm groups, all of whom are in the agricultural “industry”. Some are in the dairy industry; some are in the beef industry; and some are in the organic industry. Some are in the animal health industry. Some are good friends with whom I attend social events; some are just regular friends; others are strictly business colleagues.

As I suspect with many academicians, my “work” life and my “life” life merge together into one, giant, chaotic cacophony. As my husband will attest, I observe no strict schedule of work time versus private time—it all blurs together as I simultaneously try to keep all of my various teaching, research, outreach, grant writing, travel, and family balls aloft in the air— a juggling act familiar to every parent. I have never understood the term “work-life balance”; it suggests that my work is not part of my life and I don’t feel that way. My work is an integral part of my life.

On February 5, 2015, six University of California—Davis scientists, myself included, received a FOIA request from U.S. Right to Know. The request was for all correspondence (letters, emails) written or received since 1/1/2012 to or from me and to or from any staff or employees of any of the following organizations: Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer or Bayer Crop Science, BASF, DuPont or Pioneer, Dow or Dow AgroSciences, Ketchum, GMO Answers, Biotechnology Industry Organization, Council for Biotechnology Information, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Fleishman Hillard, Ogilvy&Mather, Winner&Mandabach, Bicker, Castillo&Fairbanks, and the NGO No on 37. That is more than 3 years of email traffic.

The request, written by the head of USRTK Gary Ruskin (Ruskin headed up the failed campaign to pass a mandatory labeling law in California), read: 

“I am making this request on behalf of U.S. Right to Know, a 501(c)(3) non-profit food research organization. The records disclosed pursuant to this request will be used in the preparation of articles for dissemination to the public. Accordingly, I request that you waive all fees in the public interest because furnishing of the information sought by this request will primarily benefit the public.”

I did not pay immediate attention to the request at the time as I was in Australia tending to my elderly mother who had taken a nasty fall, and was in a hospital getting a skin graft. Needless to say other priorities had my attention. But I remember reading that email in the hospital and feeling a small knot form in the pit of my stomach. My mom asked what was wrong when she saw my worried face, but I just shrugged. She had her own problems to deal with, and at 85 she did not need to be worrying about anything but getting better.

Upon returning to the U.S., with mom recuperating nicely, I spent a couple of days collating all of the received and sent email correspondence over that requested time period, ~ 75,000 in all. I would bet that number the not uncommon for many academics. Of course more than 99.9% of the emails were unrelated to the FOIA request. There were many university business emails, student emails, emails from my health club, kids’ school, SPAM, and so on. The “.com” entity from which I had the most commercial email correspondence was “Yahoo.com”.

At 7 am on Saturday February 21st, I sat down with a Univerity of California legal analyst and copied the relatively small number of compliant emails to her USB disk. Since that time I personally have not spent any more time on this FOIA request as the UC legal team is doing what it is required to do under the California Public Records Act law. The UC Davis lawyers, public servants supported by state funds, are using their time to sort through each and every email from all of the professors as there are strict laws regarding what can be released.

I will add that since then I received a second FOIA request from USRTK on August 3 requesting all correspondence (letters, email) from: (1) any staff or employees of any of the following organizations or (2) persons: Coalition for Safe and Affordable Food, FP1 Strategies, CMA, American Council on Science and Health, Genetic Literacy Project, Jon Entine, Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation, and any email correspondence since January 1, 2013 to or from me to or from or cc’d to or bcc’d to any of the following domains: Cfsaf.org , Fp1strategies.com, Acsh.org, Cmabuildstrust.com, and Gatesfoundation.org.

I have never even heard of some of these newly added organizations. But I again collated and turned over the few compliant emails to the legal analyst. In addition new UC affiliates including colleagues at different campuses, 10 in all now, had been added to the request. This further increased the scope of the FOIA request and the time that will be required for the legal team to compile all of these records in accordance with California law. It is evident that these requests may continue for years.

FOIA attacks get personal

In the meantime, I have watched with increasing distress at the way that Dr. Kevin Folta, of the University of Florida, also a FOIA request target, has been portrayed subsequent to the public release of his FOIAed emails. Why distress? Because I know Kevin and I know how deeply he cares about science. I have had dinner at his house, and we recently did an early morning fitness “bootcamp” when he was in Davis. I consider him a friend, and his job is not that different than mine—we are both science communicators who talk about breeding; he talks about plants, I talk about animals.

Ironically enough, I first met Kevin at a meeting in Denver, CO in 2014 that was sponsored by the non-profit group AGree. The invitation described a meeting “to learn about and discuss different aspects of GE technology that are relevant to AGree’s work. The group is not planning to reach consensus, but rather have a productive dialogue informed by those with expertise in a number of topics, including: yields, weed and pest resistance, human health and environmental safety, and labeling.”

I remember that meeting clearly, as I had to miss out on the first night of my family’s annual end-of-school camping trip with the kids at Samuel P. Taylor State Park. However, I thought it was worthwhile to forgo that one night in the redwood forest to engage in respectful dialogue on the topic of GMOs.

Kevin and I, along with all of the invited participants at that meeting, had our travel expenses covered to attend. I never thought to disclose that travel reimbursement—$518.53 for anyone interested, most of which was the $438 economy return airfare to Denver. I would not have attended that meeting if I had to cover the expenses personally, and there is no pot of university money for interstate travel to these types of meetings. I was not paid for attending; I volunteered my time to further constructive discussions about the public debate over biotechnology.

According to university policy, no disclosure is required for “a travel payment that was received from a non-profit entity exempt from taxation under Internal Revenue Service Code Section 501(c)(3) for which you provided equal or greater consideration.” In this case my out of pocket expenses were $518.53. It never occurred to me to make that public as receiving direct reimbursements for incurred interstate travel expenses to speak at meetings is a routine part of my job—and I think I speak for almost all academics in almost every field of study, nationally, on this issue.

Like Kevin, I speak at many venues throughout the nation. Public communication and engagement is part of my job description. I doubt anyone is much interested that I received travel expenses from the Academy of Veterinary Consultants to speak about the USDA-funded Bovine Respiratory Disease Coordinated Agricultural Project at its meeting in Denver, CO in July 2014; nor that I received travel reimbursement from Tuskegee University to speak at its George Washington Carver Lecture Series about “The future of animal biotechnology and the importance of science communication” in April 2015.

Public sector scientists typically draw on a number of sources to help cover outreach expenses, such as speaker travel costs, meals, and meeting hall rentals, including registration fees, public grants and sometimes donations or sponsorships from private companies that have an interest in the outreach topic. The company sponsors for a recent conference that I organized at UC Davis called “Applied Reproductive Strategies in Beef Cattle” can be found here. Indeed, many public conference grants require that industry match the public funds. This is true whether the topic is something controversial like biotechnology, or something non-controversial, like drought management.

I have observed Kevin giving biotechnology presentations on several occasions. He provides evidence-based, factual content. He reports on his own published research results (not sponsored by industry), and also reports on the scientific consensus that the genetically engineered crops currently on the market are safe to eat – a conclusion reached by every major scientific organization in the world. I have seen how he speaks with passion about science. Perhaps to his detriment, he does not censor his opinions in person or in email correspondence. He says what he thinks. He spends an inordinate amount of his free time on nights and weekends doing science communication. None of that could be considered wrongdoing. In fact it’s just the opposite: he’s responsibly communicating the up-to-date science, as he is mandated to do as a scientist at a public university.

My extension program at Davis focuses on the use of biotechnology and genomics in livestock production systems. As a UC Cooperative Extension specialist, I carry on the 100-year tradition (authorized by the 1914 Smith-Lever act making federal funds available for extension work) of extending science to farmers and ranchers, and the general public. I follow in the footsteps of my predecessors who took breeding techniques such as artificial insemination to the field in the 1940s. My position description states that I am to 'Establish linkages and interact with the diverse animal industries of the state of California including the emerging animal biotechnology industry... and provide subject matter assistance in genomics and biotechnology with a major emphasis on agriculture and use of products resulting from biotechnology’.

Yet the FOIA requests I received were for companies and organizations mostly associated with the plant biotechnology industry. So, why me? Why were my emails FOIAed?

Initially, according to USRTK, the demands targeted only researchers who have written articles posted on GMO Answers, a website backed by food and biotechnology firms. I did volunteer to answer some questions on that site about animal feeding studies for no pay on my own time. I am committed to science communication in as many forums as possible. However, it quickly became clear that citing GMO Answers was not Ruskin’s real motivation, as many of those targeted at UC and around the country had never written for that site. When confronted with this fact, Ruskin acknowledged that he requested documents from the scientists with no connection to GMO Answers because they made public statements opposing California's 2012 GM food labeling proposition, which was defeated.

Today, the scope of the requests has moved well beyond GMO Answers and Proposition 37. The real target seems to be prominent scientists affiliated with land-grant universities across the United States engaged in public discussion about GMOs. That description fits me; I have been involved in public communication around this topic, and many other related controversial topics. You do not need to look too far to find controversial topics in animal agriculture. I have spoken about cloning, genomic selection, the AquAdvantage salmon, animal biotechnologies, GMOS, coexistence of different agricultural production and marketing systems and food labeling.

Full disclosure

Although I am a public scientist, I do have a “connection” to industry, which will likely make me a target of groups like USTRK. I was a student intern at Calgene in 1996, as a part of my PhD training. My genetics Ph.D. program included a “Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology,” which meant I had to take some additional course work on biotechnology and ethics, and was also required to undertake a 3-month internship at a commercial company. I chose to intern at Calgene, partly because it was conveniently located in Davis where my husband and I had just purchased our first house, and also because it was a cool little startup company initiated by UC Davis faculty and in 1996 Calgene had just successfully commercialized the first genetically engineered plant, the Flavr Savr tomato.

As a result of the contacts I made during that internship, I was subsequently offered a job at Calgene in the genomics discovery group following the completion of my Ph.D. I jumped at the chance as I had just given birth to our first son in 1997 and wanted to be in close proximity to him in Davis to continue nursing him for a year. Unfortunately, jobs in animal biotechnology within a 20-mile “proximity for breastfeeding” radius of Davis were not in great supply. But a genome is a genome, and DNA is DNA—whether it’s plants or animals makes little difference.

In addition to the birth of my son and the publication of “Dolly” the cloned sheep, something else happened in 1997; Calgene was purchased by a company called Monsanto. I worked at what was subsequently called the “Calgene-campus” on the genomics team through the birth of my second son and was able to obtain some great experience in genomic techniques. However, animal agriculture and extension have been, and always will be, my passion. And when my current position opened up at UC Davis in 2002, I leaped at the opportunity.

In the interests of full disclosure, in addition to my job at Calgene, I have also worked as a peach packer, a bar maid, a wool washer, as a jillaroo on a cattle ranch and a roustabout in a shearing shed, as a research scientist for a now defunct Australian animal health company called Cooper’s Animal Health that was no-doubt purchased by a larger animal health company, as an International Agricultural Exchange Association trainee at a Santa Gertrudis bovine embryo and semen collection facility in Texas (not exactly sure I want to know the perceived conflict of interest that job suggests!), and as a livestock and dairy advisor for UC Davis Cooperative Extension in the San Joaquin Valley following the completion of my Master’s degree in Animal Science at Davis in the early 1990s.

In the last year alone, I have spoken to around 70 groups on topics related to my expertise, including on “Beef heifer replacement: Considerations related to breed and biological type” and “Use of Parentage Testing: Implications for Bull Fertility and Productivity”. These groups have included high school students (drove myself) public organizations (e.g. Healthy Eating Club, Kilaga Springs Lodge, Lincoln, CA (used in-state university travel funds to pay for the mileage) and producer audiences (e.g. North Bay Dairy Women, Petaluma, CA (in-state university travel funds for that one too), scientific conference attendees (too many to document here but mostly reimbursed by non-profit scientific societies although they typically solicit sponsorship from all sorts of industries), the Intelligence Squared Debate in New York City (IQ2 paid travel expenses for all participants) and the Congressional House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health in Washington, DC (made a special request to my dean and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources for university funding to testify).

I have also published a number of peer-reviewed papers in the scientific literature over the past year resulting from my research. The sources and grants that fund my research projects have always been publicly available on my website. Many of my papers have nothing to do with GMOs—for example: “Imputation of Microsatellite Alleles from Dense SNP Genotypes for Parentage Verification Across Multiple Bos taurus and Bos indicus breeds”—and sadly they generated little interest beyond my scientific colleagues. However, those associated with GMOs, most notably “Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations,” have been highly publicized and routinely maligned and attacked by groups opposed to genetic engineering.

Is public engagement on GMOs worth it?

I provide this background as I have been seriously thinking about whether I want to continue communicating about the controversial topic of biotechnology, and specifically the breeding method known as genetic engineering. The political discourse and social media around this topic are so toxic. Kevin’s scientific reputation is being maligned because of his biotechnology outreach efforts, and for routine expenses that are part of normal university business.

If Kevin never spoke in public he would not be the subject of these personal attacks or repugnant comments about his deceased mother or threats to his person. The questions I have been asking myself include whether I want to expose my successful extension program and scientific reputation to this type of attack? Would it be more pragmatic to only speak on non-controversial breeding methods so as to avoid being a target? Or only at events that are sponsored by 501(c)(3) non-profit entities? Should I forgo interstate speaking opportunities in the future? Are there conferences and/or meetings I should not attend? Are there industries I should not speak to, and as a public sector scientist how do I determine which ones are verboten? Should I change how I communicate with colleagues in the future? Should I continue to risk interacting with journalists? For me most importantly, am I putting my family or students at risk in any way?

Although it’s tempting to avoid the conflict, that would not be true to my nature. At the end of the day I have to do what I feel is the right thing. I believe the thousands of genetic markers discovered through livestock sequencing projects, the information obtained from numerous genome wide association studies, the development of genomic selection statistical methodology to include molecular data in genetic merit estimates, genome editing techniques, and genetic engineering technologies are all useful individually. But collectively, they offer a powerful approach to accelerate real genetic change in our food animal species to the advantage of food security and agricultural sustainability globally.

I love extension and I enjoy my job. I am not going to stop communicating science because I feel what I do is important. As an agricultural scientist and a parent I have an interest in promoting evidence-based public policy. I think it is imperative that public sector scientists have a seat at the table, and are not cowed into silence about specific technologies or frightened away from talking about controversial subjects. At heart I am an optimist, and ultimately I want to ensure a future for my kids in which Carl Sagan’s foreboding nightmare, articulated in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, is never realized.

I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness....”

Top image credit: Genetic Literacy Project