What was wrong when opposition groups did it to climate scientists, according to supporters of anti-science agendas like Union of Concerned Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council, is suddenly just fine when it is being used against every other evidence-based position, but especially when it comes to helping their wealthy donors in the $100 billion Big Organic industry.
Professor Kevin Folta of the University of Florida in Gainesville (and a guest columnist on Science 2.0) is being slammed by those anti-science groups and the USRTK front group because Monsanto paid his expenses to give talks about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But when Pesticide Action Network was flying Professor Tyrone Hayes of Berkeley to Hawaii to mobilize middle-school students against agriculture, that was just supporting an "independent scientist" because he was standing up for truth.
Well, it is the hypocrisy of politics on one hand and it is simply illogical on the other. The political aspect is simple - Whole Foods shoppers are a well-defined voting bloc and environmental groups get a lot of money, all of it from those same voters, as both private donors they don't disclose and laundered through foundations, some of which are offshore and only exist on paper. US Right To Know is going to have to produce results if they want to keep that money rolling in and this is a high-profile thing to do.
The illogical part is more obvious to anyone who knows how public relations works. One group of researchers is too small to matter so it would be pointless to try and buy them. Science 2.0 has 15 million readers a year and no one ever offered to buy me, so why would Monsanto be buying relatively small potatoes, audience-wise, like Professor Folta? Well, the answer is they aren't. Monsanto could buy the moon if they wanted and yet hysterical environmental groups who insist Exxon-Mobil - 20X the size of Monsanto - can't buy climate scientists off still insist that Monsanto controls everyone in biology.
$25,000 from Monsanto is supposed to make a difference in what a scientist says? No, it is not. If scientists could be bought that cheaply, Exxon-Mobil could have bought every single climate scientist in America with less than one day's revenue.
Nonetheless, Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right To Know thinks anyone who supports science must be on the take. And certainly if they answered questions on a site called GMO Answers.
It defies belief. GMO Answers is certainly industry-funded, but so what? Every applied science study is funded by industry, as is the New York Times, when they aren't running full-page ads paid for by the $300 million cash reserves at NRDC, so outreach should be industry-funded when anti-science groups are taking money to promote fear and doubt.
Anyway, in this case Monsanto paid an advertising agency, not scientists. That's the kind of thing large corporations do, which is why they have such terrible public relations.
Here is the corporate playbook for science outreach:
1) Corporation pays ad agency (in the case of GMO Answers, Ketchum) because they did a great Powerpoint presentation promising they could mobilize "social media."
2) Ad agency pays junior account executives to write me and 300 other people and suggest that, since we like science, we might love to talk to a company named Monsanto.
3) All 300 of us send that ad agency's email around to each other and make goat noises at the ad agency and wish science was not on the side of Monsanto.
But science is on the side of Monsanto, plain and simple. Yet that's still not enough. We know that "the science is on our side" has been a big failure as a public relations approach for every modern science issue: Climate change, BPA, GMOs, you name it, and Greenpeace or APCO or Ketchum or someone else got paid to be giant flops at reaching the public.
However, there is a bigger issue than science involved here. It is important to defend all scientists from the "icy chill" and harassment these Freedom Of Information Act requests attempt to bring. USRTK knows it, that is why they did it.
They are not just harassing GMO Answers participants, they are going after anyone who is on the side of science. Writing at Nature, Keith Kloor notes that one scientist, at Washington State University, hasn't participated in GMO Answers at all. She is instead a milk-lactation researcher who simply refuted a bizarre claim that the pesticide glyphosate was in breast milk.
What is the final, and most important piece of evidence to show corporations are not in control of anything at all in what is a culture war rather than a science one? If they were, FOIAs would also be piled up at Washington State University looking for "soft money" being pushed toward organic food and anti-GMO zealot Chuck Benbrook.
Top image credit: Union of Concerned Scientists, which ironically defends scientists from harassment, but only the ones who are forecasting doom and not the ones who help feed the planet.