By Keith Kloor
Michelle McGuire, a nutrition scientist at Washington State University in Pullman, was stunned last month when activists who oppose the use of genetically modified (GM) organisms asked to read her e-mail.
US Right to Know of Oakland, California, filed a request under Washington’s freedom-of-information law to see her correspondence with, or about, 36 organizations and companies. McGuire is one of 40 US researchers who have now been targeted by the group, which is probing what it sees as collusion between the agricultural biotechnology industry and academics who study science, economics and communication.
And that investigation, which began in February, has just started to yield documents. These include roughly 4,600 pages of e-mails and other records from Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville and a well-known advocate of GM organisms. The records, which the university gave to US Right to Know last month, do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to the agriculture giant Monsanto, of St Louis, Missouri, and other biotechnology-industry interests.
The documents show that Monsanto paid for Folta’s travel to speak to US students, farmers, politicians and the media. Other industry contacts occasionally sent him suggested responses to common questions about GM organisms.
“Nobody ever told me what to say,” says Folta, who considers public outreach to be a key part of his job. “There’s nothing I have ever said or done that is not consistent with the science.”
He adds that he has never accepted honoraria for outreach work, and that the University of Florida does not require him to disclose travel reimbursements. But the e-mails show that Folta did receive an unrestricted US$25,000 grant last year from Monsanto, which noted that the money “may be used at your discretion in support of your research and outreach projects”. Folta says that the funds are earmarked for a proposed University of Florida programme on communicating biotechnology.
Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord says that the company was “happy to support Dr. Folta’s proposal for an outreach program to increase understanding of biotechnology”, and that the $25,000 grant “predominately covered travel expenses”. Lord adds that Monsanto considers public-private collaborations to be “essential to the advancement of science, innovation and agriculture”.
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