Last month, public sector scientists were alarmed when a nonprofit group opposed to GM products filed a flurry of freedom of information (FOIA) requests with at least four U.S. universities. According to a report in Science, the FOIA requests asked administrators to turn over any correspondence between a dozen academic researchers and a handful of agricultural companies, trade groups, and PR firms.
Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know (US-RTK), told Science that his organization is interested in documenting the links between universities and business, and that the requests are designed to promote transparency in a controversial research arena. But some public sector researchers worry they will also have a chilling effect on academic freedom. “Your first inclination is to stop talking about the subject,” Alison Van Eenennaam of UC-Davis told Science. “But that’s what they want. And I don’t want to be intimidated.” Other scientists are awaiting legal advice on how to respond to the requests. Kevin Folta, chair of the University of Florida’s horticulture department, wants to respond, but he worries that opponents will pull out a sentence from one of hundreds of emails and use it against him. “They are not investigating specific impropriety, they are looking for something to cause harm to reputations of public scientists,” Folta wrote on his blog. “It is a taxpayer-funded fishing trip for a ‘gotcha’, nothing more.” Science writer Keith Kloor wrote that the tactic of using FOIA is familiar in another controversial area, climate science, where researchers have faced an avalanche of document requests from climate change skeptics.
One of the strongest criticisms of the FOIA requests came from a group that many hope will become a strong ally of public ag biotech. Just days after the news broke, the Union of Concerned Scientists published an opinion titled “No Scientist Should Face Harassment. Period.” “The push and pull of the scientific process and research deliberations should be exempt from disclosure,” wrote Gretchen Goldman of the Center for Science and Democracy. “Science is an iterative process and researchers should be free to discuss, challenge, and develop ideas with a certain level of privacy.”