Activists misuse open records requests to harass researchers

Sep 8, 2015

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By The Conversation

This winter, Kevin Folta, a plant molecular biologist with the University of Florida’s (UF) Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), became the target of a sweeping public records request from US Right to Know, an activist group that seeks to expose what it calls “the failures of the corporate food system,” after answering questions on a website called GMO Answers.

Folta is chairman of the Department of Horticultural Sciences here, which I oversee as senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources at UF. His research uses genomics tools to guide traditional breeding efforts in Florida crops. On the GMO Answers site, he writes about the science of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), critically evaluating claims about the technology. He is not compensated for his time, and uses GMO Answers as a means to educate interested parties about the technology.

The result of this records request has been a months-long vetting of Folta’s communications by university attorneys in preparation for handing over thousands of emails to US Right to Know. The request is also a major distraction from his work as a scientist.

In my administrative role, I have to oversee these kinds of records requests and make sure we are abiding by both the law and ethical standards of scientific research. Requests such as the one from US Right to Know consume attention and energy, pose the danger of silencing other scientists and impede us from pursuing our true mission of groundbreaking science.

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4 comments on “Activists misuse open records requests to harass researchers

  • OP Summary:

    … scientific statements reflect scientific consensus and experimental evidence, not the influence of funders. While we can point to examples … that raise questions of research integrity … [this is not] … the norm in the scientific community. If recognized, misconduct – such as allowing results to be dictated by a funding source – can destroy careers.


    Harassing requests threaten scientific enterprise. In a society in which the might of a megaphone too often trumps the power of ideas, self-censorship can mean truth loses.


    The result of [one example of an open records] request has been a months-long vetting of [the targeted Scientist’s] communications by university attorneys in preparation for handing over thousands of e-mails … a major distraction from his work as a scientist.

    I’m tempted to simply say: Boo Hoo.

    But perhaps it would be better to expand a little on that position.

    Scientists, says the OP, are increasingly complaining about freedom of information. Those of us old enough to remember the Lenski affair (i.e. 16 years of age and over) know that this is a problem – and the OP tells us that things have not improved in that last 6 years. No! we would never have guessed …

    In addition, it would seem appropriate to recognize that – just as it can be difficult sometimes to see the boundary between free speech and harassment – there is a gray area between a legitimate request for transparency and spying on the person we wish to check.

    Finally, we all know that PR is spin is propaganda and its practitioners plumbed new depths at the end of the 20C – and still people look for a way further down … The misrepresentation of the ideas of political opponents, in particular, has always been fair game.

    Nevertheless I say this: Science, and scientists, need to understand something. We cannot ask for science to be referred-to on matters of policy and, at the same time, say that science should be free from scrutiny.

    To claim that science does not require scrutiny is identical to the special pleading of religions and their claims to ‘different’.

    The New World demands scrutiny, transparency and rigor. This is a good thing.

    Scientists: Ask not what education and politics have done for you today, ask what you have done for education and politics.


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  • Regardless of any unpaid work done on other sites, scientists need to be up-front and honest about any sponsorship they are being paid directly or indirectly. False posturings of unbiased “independence” are not acceptable from those selected for funding by vested interests, or fronting for material supplied by interested parties.

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  • I’m curious to know if the GMO-bashing occurs in countries where labeling is required. How much does up front transparency (in the form of labeling) head off potential misperception by the public?

    Here in the States, the GMO industry has lobbied hard to prevent labeling, and so far it has been successful. But to me, it only fans the fire of mistrust. If the industry is secure in GMO’s safety, labeling should not be an issue.

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  • Science is not above scrutiny – it carefully, and systematically employs it. The issue is rather with those who seek to misdirect by misinformation. Here’s a new tactic, ask for the raw data and I’m sure scientists would be happy to oblige. Want to look at the research papers, then ask and you’ll be emailed a copy. Want to see personal information sent to PhD students, tutors, students, etc – this is now wasting time and resources!

    Perhaps it is time to fight fire with fire, and mercilessly use Freedom of Information requests on each of these companies to identify their tactics and targets? What, you can’t use these requests on private charities, companies, etc. Well now, that is a double standard and a joke in terms of scrutiny!

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