FOIA. It’s the New Four-Letter Word.

bullet-LeafSeveral weeks ago, I was notified by my alma mater (the University of Saskatchewan) that the US Right to Know (USRTK) had submitted an Access To Information Act (ATIP) request seeking the production of documents pertaining to “…Camille (Cami) D. Ryan, formerly a professional associate in the Department of Bioresource Policy Business and Economics at the College of Agriculture”.

I was not surprised. Why? For the past year or more, I watched this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issue unfold. High profile academics working in agricultural research and outreach all over North America, and their home institutions, were subjected to public records requests from USRTK. I have had close working relationships with only a few of these academics. One is my former PhD supervisor, some have been co-authors on articles or chapters, others I have had the opportunity to meet/work with at conferences or other science-related events. Many I haven’t even met while others I have only connected with in passing. I know them all by reputation. These academics are credible, public sector scientists with decades of experience working in agriculture-related research. They are plant and animal geneticists, political economists, plant breeders, microbiologists, etc., who – through their work – are making significant steps forward in crop research, varietal development, and in how our food is produced and distributed in the world. While I recognize that I am just a ‘small fish’ in a ‘large pond’ of brilliant academics, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I received a request due to these connections that I have and (more likely) to my recent move to Monsanto.

What the FOIA?!

FOIA and its Canadian equivalent, ATIP, are laws enacted to allow for the full or partial disclosure of documents controlled by government organizations (including public sector universities). These laws and the ‘request mechanisms’ are intended to protect public interest by ensuring that public sector organizations and those that are employed by them are operating on the up-and-up. Quite simply, they are accountability mechanisms.

Early last year, 14 US scientists were targeted with FOIA records requests. As of now, that number has risen to well over 40 and more recent efforts have expanded into multiple rounds of searches of emails requested by not only USRTK, but other NGOs, activists, and journalists as well. All are intent on looking for “nefarious” connections linking public sector researchers with corporations and other industry organizations.

Let’s be clear. Relationships between academics and industry do exist. I have blogged about the Genome Canada model here. Few, if any, academics would apologize for these kinds of interactions. In the agriculture sector, academic-industry connections have led to important changes in the food security system, to the development of better crop varieties, and other innovations that have social and economic value.  The impetus behind this is laid out in the Morill Act  (Steve Savage talks in more detail about that here) with the stated purpose for Land Grant universities to promote research, education, and outreach in the “agricultural and industrial arts”.  Yes, outreach. The relationships between the public and private sectors are part of this mission to ensure that socially and economically valuable innovations reach the people who need them.

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FOIA Me. FOIA You.

The tidy little package that the USRTK will receive from the U of S will consist of only 168 pages of emails sourced from my account via the university server. These emails were generated based upon a search (17 search terms identified by USRTK such as “Monsanto”, “Syngenta”, “BASF”, “Ketchum”, etc) of my email folders covering the two-year span of time from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013 (when my research contract ended with the U of S).

Yep. That’s 168. Pages. This is a mere drop in the FOIA bucket. In my case, the estimated invoice for production of these documents by the U of S for USRTK is ~$3500 CDN. But this amount doesn’t even begin to reflect the actual costs imposed on university faculty and personnel, including those that work in IT, administration, and the university’s legal department. Now, amplify these kinds of costs across 40+ FOIA respondents and their home institutions. Imagine the time, administration, and opportunity costs that have been amassed all across North America for this FOIA initiative.

The social and economic costs are considerable. This means less time spent on conducting research, training graduate students, teaching, and writing/administering grant applications.

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While USRTK and others purport to uncover mass collusion in agricultural research, what they are really uncovering is the social, human animal at work. Nothing more. These are scientists – #scientistsarepeople – working in related areas, interacting with one another and exchanging ideas, collaborating on projects, and co-publishing; working to find solutions to social, economical and scientific challenges that cannot be addressed by any one person, organization or institution in isolation.

So, who the FOIA cares?

We should all care. The costs alone are problematic (see above). These email requests amount to taking a subset of raw footage and twisting it into stories that feed into an inflexible, pre-conceived narrative. While freedom of information laws are designed to serve a public good (ensure accountability), they can also be used as tools to intimidate and diminish public good – to subvert democracy.

The silver lining to this cloudy issue may be in the ‘call to action’ for those of us working in the areas of agriculture, science, and innovation. Scientists are the experts. As experts and advocates in private and public sectors, we need to continue to work (collectively) towards solving problems that make sense for societies. But we also need to communicate better about how these relationships are structured and why they matter. Now – more than ever – we need to be transparent about the work that we do and how we do it if we are to earn and maintain public trust.leaf2

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 “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

― Dara Ó Briain

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Related articles:

Brown, Kristen V. (2016). “How internet trolls silenced a scientist…and why we need to rethink our entire approach to harassment online.” Fusion. February 24th.

Brown, Tracy. (2016). “It’s silly to assume all research funded by corporations is bent.” The Guardian.

Genetic Expert News Service. (2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.” September 8.

Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“. The GRIST. September 9.

Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.

Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.

Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15.

Ropeik, David. (2015). “What’s More Dishonest: Scientists Taking Corporate Cash or Mudslingers Attacking Them?” Big Think.

Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.

Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.

Select References:

BioChica. (2015). “The funding of science: public & private sector collaborations.” FrankenFoodFacts.

Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). “Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development”. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).

Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Academics Review.

GeneticsExperts.org (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”.

Giddings, V., R. D. Atkinson, and J.J. Wu. (2016). “Suppressing Growth: How GMO Opposition Hurts Developing Nations.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. February.

International Development Research Centre. (2014). “New public-prviate partnerships address global food security.” http://www.idrc.ca/en/regions/global/pages/ResultDetails.Aspx?ResultID=133

Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation DeficitReport/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. April.

Kniss, Andrew. (2015). Three-part series beginning with “Who funds my weed science program?”, “I am biased and so are you”, and “On transparency, intimidation, and being called as shill”. Weed Control Freaks. August.

Novella, Steven. (2015). “FOIA Requests to Biotech Scientists.” NeurologicaBlog. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/foia-requests-to-biotech-scientists/

Orac. (2016). “Transparency” should not equal a license to harass scientists. Respectful Insolence. http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/01/11/transparency-should-not-mean-a-license-to-harass-scientists/

Spielman, D.J. F. Hartwich, and K. von Grebmer. (?) “Public-private Partnerships and Developing-country Agriculture: Evidence from the International Agricultural Research System.” Future Agricultures. http://www.future-agricultures.org/farmerfirst/files/T2a_Spielman.pdf

The Library of Congress. (2016). “Morill Acts.” https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Morrill.html

 

Ready, set, shame!

Under the Influence (CBC) has been a favorite program of mine for some time. Terry O’Reilly, the host, explores the evolution of marketing from the 20th century into the 21st century…it’s really fascinating stuff. I always enjoy O’Reilly’s honey-smooth vocal intonations as he creatively grounds his observations in real-world scenarios. In this podcast from 2013 called Shame: the secret tool of modern marketing, Terry “…peels back the layers of shame in our modern world.”

To understand how marketing works today, O-Reilly says “we first need to go back in time”. Unlike today, in the early to mid 1800s we didn’t really care a great deal about how we smelled or what color our teeth were. Through an effective advertising strategy of “social shaming”, companies have been able to position their products and gain market share for the past 150 years. This approach is characterized through messages like: “Control that body odor, people are talking about you!” or “Halitosis is making you a social pariah” or “if you have whiter teeth you will attract the right partner”.

What do bad breath, yellow teeth, and body odor have to do with this blog post? Nothing really. But this whole notion of “social shaming” certainly does. By explicitly promoting the benefits (i.e. whiter teeth) of a given product, companies are implicitly communicating negative social impacts by not using the product.

Setting the “shaming” scene

CR-ShockLast fall, I attended a local community event in rural Alberta where there were a number of young moms in the room, balancing cherubic babies on their hips.  I eavesdropped in on an exchange that went something like this:

Mom #1 says proudly: “Jacob just moved up from rice cereal to baby food.”

Mom #2: “Oh, what are you feeding him?”

Mom #1: “Oh, I picked up [Name Brand] baby food at [Store Name]. We are trying that for now. We bought a selection of different vegetables and fruits to see how he likes them.”

Mom #3: “Well, I certainly hope that it’s organic!”

Mom #1: “Um… I don’t know. Well, I don’t think so…I…”

Mom #2: “I only feed Kaelynn organic baby food. In fact, I special order it in from [Specialty Baby Food Company].”

Mom #3: “I’ve heard about that! I feed my baby natural baby food with no preservatives that I get from [Local High-Priced “Natural” Grocery Store].

Mom #1: “But isn’t that expensive?”

Mom #2: “Yes, it is more money than the supermarket-bought brands but my Kaelyn is worth it.”

Mom #3: “…After all, Mom #1, the safety and health of our babies is important.”

*awkward silence*

Mom #1 looks awkwardly at her feet and shifts healthy, cherubic Jacob to the other hip.

Mom #2 and Mom #3 mentally un-invite Mom #1 from the next play date.

[END SCENE]

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We humans are social animals

As Matthew Lieberman says, we are “wired to connect” (2013). Our nature is to elevate and preserve status we have within the social ‘herd’. To do so, we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, humans will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Our social environment has changed a great deal over the years where platforms like Facebook and Twitter have grown into central components of our daily human-to-human interactions:

“…social media increases the ability of aggrieved individuals to rally a large group of people around their cause, or publicly expose and embarrass someone they define as a deviant…A virtual mob can be mobilized overnight to spread the word of someone’s alleged wrongdoing, flood his or her inbox with hate mail, and apply other kinds of pressure.”

– Jason Manning, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University –

Tapping into our base fears

Because we are pack animals, we rely on our personal networks for affirmation and survival. If socially ostracized, our visceral response is that our ‘survival’ is in jeopardy.  Advertisers are well-aware of these fears. It is not only companies that employ these kinds of tactics to persuade consumers to buy their products. The ‘social shaming’ strategy is effectively used by different actors in various parts of our social world to influence behavior and public opinion. Via social media, we can easily lob shame-bombs at anyone we disagree with while ducking real accountability for those actions (often shielded behind anonymous profiles).  And sadly, by extension, we often use these same shaming tactics on our own friends, family, and community members.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:

 

The Dose Makes the Poison: 2016 edition

Today is a good day to (re)launch my personal blog – now titled “Camistry” – showcasing its new, snappy design. Thanks to my very talented cousin, Shawn, for his creative input and for “re-imagining” my online look.

I also took the opportunity to update the “Dose Makes the Poison” table. Since I originally posted it exactly two years ago, it has gotten tens of thousands of hits.

Here is that table. The content is the same, but it now comes with a bit of an artistic facelift.:)

You can download the updated toxicity table 2016 as a pdf as well (better resolution).

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War on seeds or war on weeds? The answer lies in ‘quality of life’

In anticipation of International Women’s Day 2016 (IWD2016) (March 8th), I am re-blogging this post from 2013 on women, weeding, agriculture… from first world to third world.

“Women are going to form a chain, a greater sisterhood than the world has ever known.” ― Nellie L. McClung

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Have you ever weeded a garden? I have. Many times. I recall as a child helping my grandmother weed her garden. Sometimes she used it as a form of punishment (yes, I had my moments). The garden wasn’t large but the task was onerous. Especially for a leggy, curious and impatient girl who’d rather be climbing trees, squashing pennies on the railway tracks or playing in the creek.

mom48Grandma and me (Mother’s Day 1971)

Whether you live in the city or the country, weeding is one of those little tasks that becomes part of the summer routine. If you want your backyard garden to thrive, you need to get rid of the competitive, unwanted plant material before it sucks the life out of a good crop of lettuce or beets.

But these are first world problems.  Let’s move a bit further south…

In an FAO study conducted in 2011, it…

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“Into that good night…”

On this, the five year anniversary of my mother’s death, a re-blog. I miss you, mom. #grief #mentalhealth #cancer #motherdaughterrelationships

“Mother-daughter relationships are complex. The relief you feel to see your mother’s suffering end – when you watch the stress lines around a loved one’s eyes and mouth melt into that peaceful eternal sleep – can be palpable. But the grief for loss of what was and could have been can hang over you like a dark cloud. It can bury you, if you are not careful.”

Camistry

January 27, 2012

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One year ago today, my mom passed away…

Mother-daughter relationships can be complex.  My relationship with my mother was that and then some.  As her only child, I was the focus of her attention, her criticisms, her praise…everything. She was a colorful character, my mom.  She had a deep laugh, a wry wit and a ferocious temper. She was beautifully stubborn, intensely loyal with a deep faith. Mom was a remarkable woman who had shouldered her share of heartache and pain. She was an alcoholic diagnosed as bi-polar quite late in life.  And, tragically, once mom had successfully battled those demons she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

My stepfather has been a rock, of course.  He was incredibly attentive to mom and her needs. He struggled to keep and care for mom at home – probably for way too long.  Although Mom designated me as her…

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2016 – The Year of Gratitude and Grit

Last year was my “Year of Living Creatively”.  My goal was to familiarize myself with some of my old hobbies (painting, poetry-writing, handi-crafts, etc) and experience new ones. Although I didn’t ‘create’ (in the crafty sense) as much as I would have liked to in 2015, I did accomplish a few things:

  •  I finger-crocheted a scarf and have started crocheting an afghan (with the help of my daughter, the crocheting fiend <3).
  • I acted in a local theatre production with Dewdney Players in Okotoks, Alberta. I love theater and theatre peeps. Check out my post about that experience here.
  • I baked a pie. This might sound simple for some, but not for me. ‘Science made me do it’ and I overcame a lot self-doubt in the process. I posted a blog entry on the whole ordeal. Check it out.
  • My husband and I built a brand new house in the Foothills of Alberta. We also sold it six months later. Sigh. Quite a bit of creativity goes into designing, building, and decorating a house. But there is a whole new level of creative thought that goes into letting that home go after such a short time. (I tried to not get emotionally attached but…)
  • Finally, over the past several months, I settled into my new position with Monsanto Canada. This was quite a process as I had to do it remotely (from my home office in Alberta), away from my team of colleagues. That’s tough. I missed the day-to-day and face-to-face interactions. Added to that, transitioning from academia into working in the private sector is not easy.

It is also not easy to leave family, friends and move to another country…

That’s why I’ve dubbed 2016 “The Year of Gratitude and Grit”.  This year marks something new and exciting for us. Earlier this month, The Cowboy and I settled on a property in Missouri. From our new home, we will navigate the next leg of our life journey (and I will continue my work with Monsanto at the company’s head office in St. Louis). While we were so sad to leave friends, family (especially our grown son and daughter) in Canada, this new adventure represents exciting new opportunities for us. We get to explore a new part of the world, experience different cultures, see new sights and build relationships with people in a new community.

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It takes courage and ‘pluck’ (as my grandma would say) to take life-changing steps like these and permanently plant oneself in another part of the world. That’s where the ‘Grit’ comes in. As for ‘Gratitude’, we are thankful for every experience that has led us to this moment. And we are grateful for every opportunity that will move us forward from here.

A few items to take note of…

Our new community in Missouri was hit by a massive flood over the holidays.  This situation reminded me of the High River flood of 2013. (#HellOrHighWater). And although it will take some time for the community of Eureka (and surrounding areas) to recover and rebuild, there has been a great deal of progress to date. As always, I am amazed by the resilience of people! #EurekaStrong #Grit #Gratitude

The Cowboy and I love our new property (pictured below). The house that we purchased is nestled on a handful of picturesque acres where our horses will have plenty of room to run.  The house itself is 50 years old and very charming but in is dire in need of a renovation. Most of you probably know that The Cowboy is a finishing carpenter / craftsman. When he arrives with horses and tools next week, we will be getting started on what will likely turn out to be 12-week home improvement project. Stay tuned as I will be tweeting the entire process from beginning to end. And maybe, just maybe, the social-media-shy Cowboy will let me take pictures of him in action! #Grit #Gratitude #RenoJunkies

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“Grit is pushing beyond the platitudes, and finding authentic connections that will encourage you to embrace discomfort and embark on a journey that always seeks to push you outside the box.”

Chrissanne Long