When the devil hops on your bandwagon

July 19, 2014

So I was just on LinkedIn to respond to a contact request and an article in my feed caught my eye - Why good science isn't enough. I spend a good chunk of my time working on a project to improve the quality and interpretability of scientific information, so my feeds are clogged with all manner of #openscience handwaving. Thus it wasn't the title that got my attention, but rather the author: Robb Fraley, CTO of agricultural giant Monsanto. Working as an agicultural laborer is what actually set me down the path to neuroscience (this is a story for another time), and I know enough about Monsanto and the public's reaction to their science that I was compelled to check out what Fraley had to say.

Here's the gist: Robb Fraley is the son of an Illinois farmer who wanted to make his dad's job better, so he started studying genetic engineering so he could improve agricultural crops. He began working at Monsanto in the early 80s and soon enough the company was rolling out genetically engineered plants. Farmers and scientists seemed pretty keen on the technology, and the government seemed to think they were safe enough, so they rolled them out to the public. There was huge blowback in Europe in the 90s and some of that storm made it over to North America in the early/mid 2000s, and for a time there was huge anti-genetic engineering sentiment (this is what actually birthed the 'organic' labelling scheme in grocery stores). In his article, Fraley seems really surprised that this happened - he thought the scientific evidence would speak for itself.

Robb Fraley you know as well as I do that you work for a chemical company that has a known history of poisoning people both overseas and in America. Does that make everything your company make poison? No - and I don't believe that genetic engineering is innately bad, and I don't think that the GE crops Monsanto makes any riskier than anything else in the food supply (though this is not exactly a compliment). But the whole "Oh, golly, who would have thought the public wouldn't trust us when we roll out a product that seems to push the limits of nature?" reaction is ludicrous. Monsanto makes GE plants because they make a herbicide called Roundup (glyphosate). Roundup is a popular herbicide and it's really good at what it does - it kills every plant it touches, and so farmers can only use it at certain times of the year, or using very accurate delivery systems. So Monsanto genetically engineers plants like corn and soybeans to be resistant to Roundup, so the weeds die and the crops live. Good news guys, we can spray poison around as much as we want!

But of course it's not that simple. If you're not using Roundup, you're just using a more specific form of herbicide, most of which have nastier environmental effects. But it's hard to explain facts like that to an already angry public that doesn't yet know how nightmarish the agri-industrial complex really is. So they said nothing, and let the claims of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth run wild in the media.

Luckily for Monsanto & friends the anti-biotech crusaders proceeded to completely wet the bed by relying on unreplicated research papers with lousy experimental methods. Their plan seemed to be to stir the pot with enough anti-science sentiment that people became so scared of genetically engineered food that they'd demand a ban or at least refuse to eat it. All in all it was a little depressing - there's a lot wrong with food production these days and the world seemed ready to talk about it. Unfortunately, due to a reliance on questionable research and anti-scientific rhetoric, the activists wasted a golden opportunity to get people thinking about what they eat, where it comes from, and how the food system that we rely on got to be the way it is today.

So here we are in 2014 and there's a corporate guy from Monsanto of all places talking about collaborative research and communication. Kind of makes sense, since Monsanto relies on scientific innovation and science needs to be collaborative in order to work, but I also feel a bit like the devil is jumping on the #openscience bandwagon. However, I want to believe that Fraley means it when he says: "I've learned the hard way: good collaboration and communication are just as important as good science. But I'm optimistic that with the right tools, policies and a common purpose, we can achieve food security in a sustainable fashion together...". So Robb Fraley, from one former farmer to another, here's what you need to do if you want to make this happen.

  1. Publish all of your research. Release every single study your company ever did, whether it "succeeded" or not, and if possible make the raw data available. Unless the scientific community knows the whole story, we are very limited in the steps forward we can take. If you want to claim you're doing good science, this is the path you need to follow.
  2. Start talking about patents, and patent law and IP. The concensus these days is that patents do nothing but hinder scientific progress, and companies like Tesla Motors are doing things like releasing their patents in the name of the public good. Monsanto has received a lot of negative attention over some really questionable court decisions relating to the patenting of lifeforms. If you want scientists to believe in a common purpose, you're going to have to justify these intellectual property shenanigans, or better yet, cut them out completely.

These action items might sound impossible. They probably are for Monsanto. But like it or not they're the two things that people need to look for when evaluating whether a corporation really is committed to communication and collaboration. Deeds not words, as they say.


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