FOIA: The new four-letter word (re-post)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is popping up on the media radar again. Because of this, I thought it timely to re-post some of old news to provide a bit more context to the new news. FOIA. For me, it’s personal.

May, 2016. Several 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.

thehumansocialanimal2

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.

Access to information doesn’t (necessarily) mean the public will be enlightened to new and deliberatively hidden truths. It means that the public has access to someone’s version of the truth. There is always a mediator with an agenda. Ask first who’s asking for the information and then ask why. Then maybe you can figure out what colour brush they are using to paint that picture with. Sometimes laws intended to enlighten throw shadows on the wrong people, places, and things.

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


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. (2016). “Who Should Fund University Research?” BioBeef Blog.

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

Monitoring your information diet

We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain.

Here are some statistical ‘appetizers’ for you:

Yes, the information drive-thru is open 24/7, folks! Anyone can post anything on the Internet, with virtually no accountability. Headlines, blog titles, and tweets can be highly provocative.  It is really difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; determine who the experts and the non-experts are and discern between good and bad information.  The Internet has radically blurred the line between fact and myth and disinformation has evolved into a product with a sizable market.

Image by: Morgan Housel (Source: Unsplash)

I’ll admit it. I get tripped up all the time when it comes to mis- and disinformation. My cognitive traps are things like satire (I’m very literal), I’ve misread intent and even failed to check background, context, or dates. I don’t think I’m alone in all this. We can all get tripped up by misplaced ideology and even carelessness. 

So, how do we cut through this smorgasbord of mass mis- and disinformation and decide what to include on our cerebral ‘plate’? I’ve compiled some basic principles that have really helped me out.

“C” Credibility: What are the author’s credentials? Is there contact information? What is the author’s position and affiliation? Is it an ‘anonymous’ author? (lack of transparency is often a bad sign). Is there bad grammar or are there misspelled words? Is the site bookended with ads/items for sale? Are the authors identifying a “problem” and trying to provide you with the $20 solution? This is indicative of another agenda.

“L” Language: Are there vague, sweeping or over-generalized statements? These can be misleading. Are there claims of “secret” or “unique” information? If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Similarly, if it is all doom, gloom and bad news, it’s likely misrepresenting the facts, too.

“E” Endorsement: Does the article cite credible sources? Continuous self-citation is not a good sign. The hallmark of a good resource is that it cites a variety of (reliable/credible) sources.

“A” Accuracy: Is the information up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, and comprehensive? Are there dates? Is the article or information current?

“R” Reliability: Does the piece feel fair, objective and moderate? Beware of buzzwords/phrases like “cure” or “irrefutable” or “scientists have proven” or “clinically proven”. Check spelling of “endorsing” institutions on the article. Often, originators of inflammatory pieces or memes will intentionally misspell names of institutions (for example “John Hopkins” vs  “Johns Hopkins” (the latter is correct)).

Photo credit: Marcus Wallis (source: Unsplash)

We live in a first world where we (most of us) don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We live in a world where status updates have become the new form of social currency. This is not all bad news, of course. We are exposed to more diverse groups of people, cultures and ethnicities, as a result. Our conversations and our understanding of ourselves and each other will undoubtedly grow and evolve with access to new information. We can even work more efficiently (when our Facebook platforms aren’t open, that is (*wink, wink*)).

But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well. When it comes to information, I have found it best to sit back, take a breath, and think slow. Chew on that information slowly then decide if it has any nutritional value for your brain and if you want to make a meal of it.

It’s up to us – as consumers – to monitor our information diets. We need to think critically about what is shared and what we share on the Internet.

 “The central work of life is interpretation.” – Proverb