I constructed and posted a rather provocative meme the other day.


quote source: @Toby_Bruce

The meme had an image.  It was graphic, shocking and sad. A photo of a starving child.

I shared the meme publicly on Twitter and privately with some of my colleagues, family and friends through email and Facebook.  The meme resonated in different ways with different people. Responses came quickly, both publicly and privately. Some found the meme thought-provoking and effective:

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. There is a very real human cost to the delay of Golden Rice and some people need to be strongly reminded of that. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words.”

“I don’t see how using existing images without turning profit is wrong. Because it makes [people] uneasy to see what is daily life for half the world?”

Others, however, were shocked and offended:

“The photo was horrifying. It eclipsed the message. I didn’t see it. What did it say?”

“I saw your meme and it kind of bothered me. I agree with so much of what you have to say, but I don’t think anyone should use the specter of poverty to make a point.”

“I’m concerned with the objectification of poor people by first world people. I don’t care what the message is. [The meme] is offensive and exploitive to people who don’t have voices.” 

Others were:

“I’m personally not a fan of using these types of images for anything but e.g. specifically raising starvation awareness. If anyone can misconstrue the message, they will play the exploitation card.”

“It is shocking, sad and evocative.  In the worst case it is a polar equivalent to the visuals used by the anti-biotech interests.”


Click on image to view Twitter dialogue

Humans think in pictures. While words can go in one ear and out the other, images ‘stick.’ This is why memes are such effective visual communication tools in this day and age of decreasing attention spans.  Memes come in the form of images or short videos and they can spread rapidly via the Internet.  We see memes cycling through our social media feeds every day.

I learned a few things about memes through this interesting exercise:

  1. These kind of communication tools can be effective, if properly executed.
  2. Proper execution requires a pre-emptive well-thought-out overarching strategy with defined goals.
  3. Each individual meme needs to be structured around a well-articulated message.
  4. That message has to be paired with an appropriate image.
  5. If the image and message don’t connect in a meaningful way or if the image is “over the top” meaning may be lost.

Where do we draw those lines? What is “over the top”? Did I use rhetoric and an emotionally-charged image to frame an ethical issue with my meme? Am I just another example where ideology led a good person with good intentions to do a wicked thing?

Communicating in this information-rich world is tough. To make our communications more effective, (and I quote Made To Stick (by Heath and Heath)), “…we need to shift our thinking from What information do I need to convey? to What questions do I want my audience to ask?” For any idea (or message) to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity.  Humans are hard-wired to feel things for people, not abstract objects or ideas.

In my blog post of October 28th, I stated that there is no room in well-executed science for provocateurs.  But is there room for a shocking and confrontational blend of images and rhetoric in order to draw First World attention to some of the world’s most dire problems, like hunger? As Steve Savage says in his blog post, Counting the Cost of the Anti-GMO Movement:

“There is a long growing list of environmental and health improvements that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement hadn’t been so effective… Some are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.”

Memes (highly controversial and inaccurate ones) continue to be an important tool in the anti-GMO toolbox. In response to that argument, my very good colleague and friend said:

“Cami, why sink to their level? We are smarter than that!” And another said:

“If this meme were to factor into the GMO debate, I think it would derail the discussion completely and not help the cause at all.”

Good points. Both of them. As is this comment by a Twitter friend:

“We need to respond to human suffering with compassion. Memes designed to prove the meme-makers point are not very compassionate.”

Are those of us that are trying to mitigate some of the damage done by the anti-GMO movement – those of us that want to see some the great technologies that we have in the First World move to where they are most needed in the Third World – being exploitative if we use these kind of memes to communicate our messages? If there are ‘boundaries’ that we need to adhere to, what are they? And how can we advocate for things like Golden Rice without using images of children?

Epilogue: I admit, the meme was shocking. A disturbing image combined with a provocative message. I shared it to provoke ‘raw’ responses.  And I got them. Most responses were highly critical. More than half that voiced opposition to the meme were close friends and family members. It would be fair to assume that they were shocked that I constructed it and I shared it as much as they were by the meme itself. 
For the record, if this meme had crossed my desktop I probably would never have shared it. I generally share ones with images of the Dos Equis Man with taglines about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Anyway, this was an interesting exercise and I am grateful for all of you that chimed in. Your feedback was supportive, critical, sometimes loud, often emotionally-charged – but always very insightful.Thank-you.

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action!

No More Food Fights: Growing a productive food and farm conversation by Michele Payn-Knoper


Agriculture and food production practices are often misunderstood by the public and maligned in the media.  These days, misinformation regarding farming practice and food quality and safety can circulate like wildfire, fuelled by the tools like Facebook and Twitter. 

“No More Food Fights” is a unique book that navigates the ‘fever swamp’ of propaganda by providing readers with realistic insights into how food makes it to our plate.  Its author, Michele Payn-Knoper, is a professional speaker, farmer, and self-professed foodie. She challenges us to abandon the ‘food fights’ in favor of balanced conversations that are approached with “curiosity, candor and civility.”

knoper quote

Payn-Knoper encourages us to celebrate our choices and to strive to engage in productive dialogue on the science behind agriculture, about what really happens on the farm, consumer perceptions of farming and food and everything in between.

What makes “No More Food Fights” really unique is its design.  Payn-Knoper organizes content around the five senses (touch, sight, sound, smell, taste) along with one more – common sense.  One side is aimed at the consumer perspective (chefs, healthcare professionals, foodies, dieticians, etc) while the ‘flip’ side reveals the perspectives of farmers, ranchers and agri-business.

“No More Food Fights” covers the gamut from biotechnology to grain and livestock production practices to animal welfare to stewardship to fertilizers, pests and protecting the environment – all in an effort to highlight the high quality of North America’s food and feed.  It is an approachable book with insights from a variety of people and professionals who have firsthand experience including farmers, dieticians, food processors, physicians, food safety experts, veterinarians, consumers and scientists.

“No More Food Fights” is a call to action.  It is a call to action for all of us no matter where we sit on the value chain – producer, processor or consumer. We need to approach our dialogues around farming and food with civility.  No negativity, no grandstanding – just good conversation!

Infecting through misinformation…a new kind of communication pathogen?

August 21, 2011

Yesterday morning, Michael Olson (host of Food Chain Radio) interviewed Dr. Don Huber.  If you are not familiar with who Dr.Huber is, I will give you a little background.

Dr. Don Huber is Professor Emeritus from Purdue University. He is (was) a soil pathologist by training and appears to have had a fairly unremarkable career affiliated with a remarkable department at a world reknowned university (a quick search of ISI Web of Knowledge this morning netted Dr. Don M. Huber only a couple of dozen peer-reviewed co-authored articles published between the 1960s and 2010 most, of which, had relatively low citation rates) [UPDATE: ISI WoK is probably not the best source for searching scientific publications, hence low numbers of reported pubs by Huber. A quick search of PubMed returned a larger number of articles]. Earlier this year, Dr. Huber scripted a letter to Secretary Vilsack warning him (and the USDA) of a pathogen that appeared to have profound implications for animal fertility and plant mortality. He linked this pathogen to a synthetic herbicide.

In theory, sounding this kind of alarm should be a good thing. However, Dr. Huber has absolutely NO peer-reviewed science backing his allegations of the connection between the so-called pathogen and synthetic herbicide. This is where the danger lies. I have followed this story for quite some time so I listened intently to Olson’s interview and Huber’s responses.

The most telling part of the interview was what Huber DIDN’T say.  When asked about who pays/backs him, he responded by reviewing his history of research (academic life at Purdue). When asked about the scientific processes that purportedly support his allegations, Huber reverts back to why he sent Vilsack the letter in the first place. He never responds to Olson’s questions directly. In fact, he subverts them. Also, there are no references to peer-reviewed research/science to support Huber’s claims. This link that Huber alleges exists between this ‘pathogen’ and synthetic herbicides is extremely weak and based primarily on conjecture.  Again, this is dangerous.

Why is this dangerous? Science is a process or method that has been established over the past few centuries. Science brings to bear with it certain key protocols.  One of these is the ‘peer review’ process that demands science be replicable and reviewed by a body of peers prior to publication. Peer-review is a ‘checks and balances’ system that is intended to bring good science and its ‘value-add’ to society in a responsible manner with accountability measures built in (search “peer review” on my blog). If these science-based protocols are ignored or poorly executed, then non-peer reviewed science – even “bad” science – can make it into mainstream spaces. Circulating unchecked, through the use of technology and social media tools, ‘bad’ science can become a social ‘pathogen’ in and of itself; infecting through misinformation.

In light of the Huber interview, I took it upon myself to do a bit more sleuthing. The thing that was nagging at me was: Who is behind Huber’s efforts here? I mean, there must be some kind of (other) agenda pushing him along? Right?

My investigation lead me to this. One potential backer is likely to be the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. They sport Huber’s cv on their site. This organization is closely aligned with the Weston A. Price Foundation and several other organizations that are “anti-GMO” in terms of their mandates/philosophies. Another key collaborator for Huber appears to be Jeffrey Smith (anti-GMO advocate, author of “Seeds of Deception” and part-time yogic-flyer). Huber’s allegations were formally endorsed and circulated by Jeffrey Smith as early as January this year, long before Huber’s letter ever made it into Vilsack’s hands (see: According to this aforementioned posting (and others), it would appear that Jeffrey and Don (Huber) are on a first name basis. In his blog post on the Institute for Responsible Technology, it appears that Smith also had access to Huber’s photos: This suggests that a very close relationship has and is being cultivated between Smith and Huber.

Here’s my two cents on all this.  Assuming that Huber is funded through an NGO or the like, I think that they should re-think him as their poster-boy.  Based upon what I heard in this morning’s interview, Huber lacks the PR saavy to carry out the ‘sell’ of bad science or ‘allegations without evidence’. Also, if a funding agent is trying to leverage reputational value out of Huber in his role/career as a scientist, they should re-think their strategy. One comment on the Food Chain Radio Show’s forum was:

“I’ve spoken with people in Huber’s previous department and they are really quite embarrassed about this individual. He does not provide data or anything you would normally use to validate claims. He hasn’t really worked in the lab for years. No one is quite sure of his agenda, but he has no credibility in scientific or ag circles.”

In closing, I think that Michael Olson handled the interview with Huber very well (I admit it, I was skeptical at first).  He obviously prepared ahead of time and asked good, relevant, relatively non-sensationalized questions. Adding to that, I think that the call-in speakers on the show brought to light the problems with the lack of ‘science’ or science-based protocols in this über-(dare I say “Huber”)mess. This, combined with Huber’s clear lack of charisma (J.Smith is way better at this (note: this is not an endorsement)) and his inability to communicate science in ‘lay’ terms (forget all the inaccuracies), will ensure that this ‘science-communication pathogen’ will not infect the public and its perceptions.


For more excellent ‘sleuthiness’ on the science of the whole ‘Huber’ deal, check out Anastasia Bodnar’s posting on the Biofortified site: “Extraordinary claims…require extraordinary evidence.”

Note: thanks to my colleagues for their input/insights on this entry.

Responses to Huber’s allegations:

– – –

POSTSCRIPT #1: September 10, 2011

Postscript to this… see blog entry on “cred” and Huber by S.D. Savage on his blog Applied Mythology (August 21, 2011 were he states:

“…because he [Huber] is saying that something terrible is happening that can be blamed on Monsanto and GMO technology, he has automatic credibility with certain constituencies….I wish I had a good term for this particular class of cred that comes from telling a particular audience what it wants to believe about some entity that it has elevated to an evil status of mythic proportions.  The best term I could find applies to the audience more than to the speaker: Credulous: ready to believe, especially on slight or uncertain evidence.”

POST SCRIPT #2: January 1, 2012

And yet another postscript… A study just came out in the December issue of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health by Williams et a:

According to the authors, “the available literature shows no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations.”

Link to article:

Huber’s letter to Secretary Vilsack, February 2011

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

A team of senior plant and animal scientists have recently brought to my attention the discovery of an electron microscopic pathogen that appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings. Based on a review of the data, it is widespread, very serious, and is in much higher concentrations in Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans and corn—suggesting a link with the RR gene or more likely the presence of Roundup. This organism appears NEW to science!

This is highly sensitive information that could result in a collapse of US soy and corn export markets and significant disruption of domestic food and feed supplies. On the other hand, this new organism may already be responsible for significant harm (see below). My colleagues and I are therefore moving our investigation forward with speed and discretion, and seek assistance from the USDA and other entities to identify the pathogen’s source, prevalence, implications, and remedies.

We are informing the USDA of our findings at this early stage, specifically due to your pending decision regarding approval of RR alfalfa. Naturally, if either the RR gene or Roundup itself is a promoter or co-factor of this pathogen, then such approval could be a calamity. Based on the current evidence, the only reasonable action at this time would be to delay deregulation at least until sufficient data has exonerated the RR system, if it does.

For the past 40 years, I have been a scientist in the professional and military agencies that evaluate and prepare for natural and manmade biological threats, including germ warfare and disease outbreaks. Based on this experience, I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high risk status. In layman’s terms, it should be treated as an emergency.

A diverse set of researchers working on this problem have contributed various pieces of the puzzle, which together presents the following disturbing scenario:

Unique Physical Properties
This previously unknown organism is only visible under an electron microscope (36,000X), with an approximate size range equal to a medium size virus. It is able to reproduce and appears to be a micro-fungal-like organism. If so, it would be the first such micro-fungus ever identified. There is strong evidence that this infectious agent promotes diseases of both plants and mammals, which is very rare.

Pathogen Location and Concentration
It is found in high concentrations in Roundup Ready soybean meal and corn, distillers meal, fermentation feed products, pig stomach contents, and pig and cattle placentas.

Linked with Outbreaks of Plant Disease
The organism is prolific in plants infected with two pervasive diseases that are driving down yields and farmer income—sudden death syndrome (SDS) in soy, and Goss’ wilt in corn. The pathogen is also found in the fungal causative agent of SDS (Fusarium solani fsp glycines).

Implicated in Animal Reproductive Failure
Laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of this organism in a wide variety of livestock that have experienced spontaneous abortions and infertility. Preliminary results from ongoing research have also been able to reproduce abortions in a clinical setting.

The pathogen may explain the escalating frequency of infertility and spontaneous abortions over the past few years in US cattle, dairy, swine, and horse operations. These include recent reports of infertility rates in dairy heifers of over 20%, and spontaneous abortions in cattle as high as 45%.

For example, 450 of 1,000 pregnant heifers fed wheatlage experienced spontaneous abortions. Over the same period, another 1,000 heifers from the same herd that were raised on hay had no abortions. High concentrations of the pathogen were confirmed on the wheatlage, which likely had been under weed management using glyphosate.

In summary, because of the high titer of this new animal pathogen in Round Ready crops,[sic] and its association with plant and animal diseases that are reaching epidemic proportions, we request USDA’s participation in a multi-agency investigation, and an immediate moratorium on the deregulation of RR crops until the causal/predisposing relationship with glyphosate and/or RR plants can be ruled out as a threat to crop and animal production and human health.

It is urgent to examine whether the side-effects of glyphosate use may have facilitated the growth of this pathogen, or allowed it to cause greater harm to weakened plant and animal hosts. It is well-documented that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and is already implicated with the increase of more than 40 plant diseases; it dismantles plant defenses by chelating vital nutrients; and it reduces the bioavailability of nutrients in feed, which in turn can cause animal disorders. To properly evaluate these factors, we request access to the relevant USDA data.

I have studied plant pathogens for more than 50 years. We are now seeing an unprecedented trend of increasing plant and animal diseases and disorders. This pathogen may be instrumental to understanding and solving this problem. It deserves immediate attention with significant resources to avoid a general collapse of our critical agricultural infrastructure.


COL (Ret.) Don M. Huber
Emeritus Professor, Purdue University
APS Coordinator, USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System (NPDRS)


Attachment 2. Letter from a Veterinarian

Hello, my name is ___________. I am a veterinarian in Michigan.

I am working with a sow herd that has had elevated death loss for  over two years and very poor reproductive performance for the last  6-8 months. I have done extensive diagnostics (primarily at Iowa  State) and can find nothing infectious that is routinely found to explain the problem.

I suspect there is a toxin involved; I have done extensive testing on  liver, feed, and water but can find no evidence of those compounds  either. We have had a few individuals mention that the use of GMO  crops could be contributing to these problems.

The producer recently saw your article to the secretary of agriculture and forwarded it to me. We are very intrigued by the organism you mention. Could you tell me if any laboratory is looking for this agent? How do we go about finding it? We are at the end of our rope and cannot figure this out.  Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated.

Attachment 3. Letter from 26 University Entomologists to EPA

Public Submission: EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836-0043.  Docket   EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836 
 Docket Title   Evaluation of the Resistance Risks from Using a Seed Mix Refuge with Pioneer’s Optimum AcreMax 1 Corn Rootworm-Protected Corn   
Document  EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836-0001; Public Submission EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836-0043     
 Public Submission Title    Anonymous public comment     Receipt Date  02/09/2009    
Doc. Legacy ID  EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836-0032(0900006480849377) Track No.    8084de39    

General Comment   
 Comment:  The following statement has been submitted by 26 leading corn insect scientists  working at public research institutions located in 16 corn producing states.  All of the scientists have been active participants of the Regional Research Project NCCC-46 “Development, Optimization, and Delivery of Management Strategies for Rootworms and Other Below-ground Insect Pests of Maize” and/or related projects with corn insect pests.  The statement may be applicable to all EPA decisions on PIPs, not just for the current SAP.  It should not be interpreted that the actions and opinions of these 26 scientists represent those of the entire group 
of scientists participating in NCCC-46.  The names of the scientists have been withheld from the public docket because virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research.

“Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed explicitly prohibit research.  These agreements inhibit public  scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless  the research is approved by industry.  As a result of restricted access, no truly  independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions  regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM, and  its interactions with insect biology.  Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited.”


Canadian Reality TV: a ‘storytelling’ avenue for ag, eh!

June 16, 2011

Misperceptions are pervasive around the agricultural industry and with agricultural practices.  We live in a world where the urban population is rapidly growing while that of the rural is dwindling.  As a society, we seem to be losing touch with our pioneering heritage and have become largely disconnected from our ‘rural roots’.  The advent of new agricultural technologies, including the introduction of genetically modified crop varieties, has created new opportunities for modern farming practice. However, these developments have also represented the rise of the agri-cynical ‘foodies’. The agriculture community now not only has to deal with the volatility of world trade markets and the weather, but also with the ‘urban armchair foodie-quarterback’ who often presumes a level of ag expertise and knowledge and often without ever even having set foot on a farm.

The pervasive question for ‘ag-vocates’ then becomes how do we reach this consumer? How do we change perceptions? I draw on a recent blog entry by Michele Payn-Knoper (Gate to Plate), a noted ag consultant in social media, where she poses this (related) question and challenges ag-vocates:

“…[W]hen was the last time you truly made an effort to relate on human terms instead of ag terms?”

How do we put a human face to agriculture? Well, there are great strides being made by many ranchers and producers. They are all doing their part to ‘tell the agriculture story’ by leveraging social media tools through blogging, Twittering and Facebook. Personally, through Twitter, I have had the pleasure of connecting with the likes of @katpinke @JeffFowle @ShaunHaney @KMRivard @cowartandmore @wifeofadairyman @4GFarms @JPlovesCotton @waynekblack @agridome – the list goes on and on… Needless to say, I have learned a great deal from these folks through the information they pass along via Twitter and other online tools such as YouTube, personal blogs and Facebook.

It is evident that online social media has become an important part of the storytelling process.  But what of television? I mean, what better way to put a human face to agriculture than through reality TV?

“Dust Up” is a new reality reality show and is touted as ‘one rowdy rural ride through the world of crop dusting’.  For almost a hundred years, Canadians have used aircraft as aids in the protection of field crops, orchards, and forests from damage caused by insects and pests, fungi, fire and even frost.  The first known aerial application of agricultural materials was by a Kiwi named John Chaytor. In 1906, Chaytor spread seed over a swamped valley floor in New Zealand, using – of all things – a hot air balloon.  Over the past several decades, things have evolved considerably in terms of aerial mechanics – from fixed-wing aircraft in the early part of the century to the use of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, post-WWII.

“Dust Up” premiered in early June on History Television and it just happens to be filmed on location in my hometown area of Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Canada (Go Bears!) This ag story revolves around three highly competitive aerial crop dusters, two – of which – are father and son (Bud and Brennan Jardine). In the air, these ‘aerial cowboys’ “…buzz inches above the fields – dodging trees and telephone wires – to deliver their payloads…” (Shaw Media Blog) while on the ground they entertain the “Dust Up” audience with family feuds, crisis management and survival strategies.  Shannon Jardine, daughter/sister and the show’s executive producer, appears to have hit the mark with this one – both in recognizing a ‘good story’ and in encouraging her family members to tell it in such a public way. This accomplished actor/producer has come a long way from the shy slip of a girl that I remember!

I have to compliment the “Dust Up” producers, publicists and principals.  They appear to have launched an excellent publicity campaign to promote the program and to raise its visibility. And they have effectively leveraged social media to accomplish this, connecting to viewers through Facebook, YouTube ( and Twitter (@DustUpTV). TV and social media are highly complementary in this case – you betcha

No matter where you farm in the world, ag-vocates all speak the same language – – – agriculture! Pesticides and fungicides play an important role in managing crops and in sustaining our food supply. The practice of aerial spraying represents a cost effective and timely way in which to protect our crops.  So, for a little drama in the sky and a whole lot on the ground – and relating ag on human terms – check out “Dust Up”! You won’t be disappointed!

“So far, the Spray Gods are on my side…” “Maverick” Brennan Jardine, Crop Duster.

“Dust Up” is produced by Paperny Films and Prairie Threat Entertainment in association with Shaw  Media and is televised Thursday evenings on History Television. Episodes of “Dust Up” can also be viewed online at:

Want to meet some more ag storytellers? Michele Payn-Knoper provides a list of farm/ranchs blogs, ag-vocates, and other ag references:  



Estey, Ralph H. (2004). “Canadian use of aircraft for plant protection.” Phytoprotection. 85 (1). Pps: 7 – 12.

Globe and Mail. (2011). “Five Shows worth Watching.” (2011). Thursday, June 9. Available online at:

McCoy, Heath. (2011). “The Hazardous World of Crop Dusting.” Star Phoenix. June 2. Available online at:

Payn-Knoper, Michele. (2011). “I eat. You farm. So what?” Michele Payn-Knoper’s Gate to Plate Blog. Available online at:

Shaw Media Blog. (2011). “New series Dust Up premieres on History Television in June.” Available online at:


Social media strategy is a must for science advocates

Launching a social media strategy to advocate for science: is GE3LS* missing the boat?

January 20, 2011

Lackes, et al., (2009), finds that few scientists use social media tools, significantly lagging the adoption rates for both business and personal use. Scientific research is essentially a communication-driven process where many of its contributors, stakeholders and consumers are part of what we might refer to as “Generation F” (the ‘Facebook’ generation). The widespread adoption of social media tools to communicate and share information has significantly changed the science-based research landscape. It’s not enough to merely sit in our labs, closed off from the world. Being memorable, as an organization or entity, is crucial in this Web 2.0 world where we are bombarded daily by millions of sound bytes.  Further complicating the matter for science and science advocates is the fact that NGOs, INGOs and other interest groups have been very proficient in taking up Internet-based communication tools to reach entirely new audiences.  As a result they are able to quickly build coalitions and mobilize the public around specific issues of interest at relatively low marginal costs (Ryan 2010).

For example, we conducted a poll at the annual VALGEN meetings in Banff in January 2010. Of the 28 scientists in the room, only 58.3% stated that they used social media tools and only 36.9% of THOSE used social media for professional purposes (professional networking, recruitment, sharing/accessing knowledge).

This lag in the adoption of social media strategies represents significant costs to both scientific and social science research agendas. For society, scientific progress far outpaces our capacity as stakeholders to adopt or understand scientific or technological developments. Thus, communication – through the integration of optimal social media strategies – becomes the currency for bridging connections between the spheres of science, technology and society.

Is GE3LS missing an opportunity here?  Do we need to formally incorporate social media strategies into our research agendas to support and advocate for science?


Lackes, R., M. Siepermann and E. Frank. (2009). “Social networks as an approach to the enhancement of collaboration among scientists.” International Journal of Web-based Communities. Volume 5, Number 4.  Pps 577-592. 

Ryan, C. D. (2010).  “Framing, Exploring and Understanding Online Anti-Technology Advocacy Networks.” Working paper. Available online at: Accessed on: January 17, 2011.


*GE3LS is the acronym that stands for genomics and its related ethical, economic, environmental, legal and social aspects. GE3LS research complements genomics research by addressing questions that lie at the interface between science and society.



My Twitter life is complete!

I am, at this very moment, experiencing the ‘academic high’.  It doesn’t come along very often.  But when it does, it is akin to a runner’s high (something that, sadly, I have experienced only once or twice). 

Today, I am trying to immerse myself into a re-write of an existing article for another publication – a common exercise in the academic world. Do the research, write up the results and then ‘spin it’ (the story) as many ways as you can.  Multiply your academic currency!  

In attempting this seemingly rudimentary task today, two words come to mind: “writer” and “block”.  Actually, now that I think of it, that’s not accurate.  This particular re-write is a merger between two existing documents.  So, the word of this less-than-productive day is more apt to be: “lazy”. When I feel “lazy” (which doesn’t happen very often ’cause I am a most dedicated, disciplined academic researcher ;o) ), I get distracted.  Working from home 80% of the time doesn’t help – there are dogs to play with, horses to pet, laundry to do (you get the picture).  Being tied to the computer and the Internet, which comprises 99.5% of my working day, doesn’t help.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn… etc. are the biggest distractions.

So what does one do when one can’t get motivated for a re-write?  One Twitters it or changes one’s FB status to reflect it, hoping to incite pity from colleagues (who are also easily distracted by social media).

My original Twitter message which contains a link to my blog and the article for re-write: 


Take note of last “@” in the Twitter message.  Richard Florida ( is the ‘creative class’ guru.  He is like the “Dalai Lama” of city/creative/urban focused academic research.  This, to some, may be a bit of an overstatement, but I have a deep respect for the man.  He is the author of the books “Who’s Your City?”, “The Flight of the Creative Class” and “The Rise of the Creative Class” to name a few.  Florida is currently affiliated with the University of Toronto and I am pleased to say that I have been, on one or two occasions, in the same room as him. I once attempted to sidle up to the man, to politely introduce myself and initiate an intellectually stimulating conversation about the nature of ‘the creative’ and how we employ the term in the Calgary CMA setting.  Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, I had a bit too much of the ‘red stuff’. While imbibing at a conference dinner augmented my confidence and served to enhance my ‘moxy’ and intellectual acumen (or so I thought), it did absolutely nothing for my coordination. My wine-induced self-assurance plummeted to sea level when I collided with a chair and twisted my ankle [academic down!]. I hung my head and hobbled off to my hotel room to nurse my pride and my ankle. That was the closest I ever came to talking to Richard Florida.      

So, here is where the ‘academic high’ comes in.  Twitter message (see above) is sent.  Almost immediately, a new message from Richard Florida is posted in my timeline stream:
AAAAAAAAAAAcccckkkkkk!  My eigenvector measure just went up!

Of course, I had to follow that up with:
I just checked my Twitter stream of @DocCamiRyan ‘mentions’…and… Yes! Florida’s re-tweet has been re-tweeted!

Hellooooo, higher ‘social media’ centrality measure! 


Researchers and activists alike benefit from dialogue… #research #activtism

An Act of Distinction

– Editorial, Nature v.466, p 414, July 22, 2010
‘Researchers and activists alike benefit from dialogue – and a clear line between legal and illegal acts.’
When prosecutors in California charged four animal-rights activists with violations of the 2008 federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) last year, they were vague about the actions involved – which is why the indictment was dismissed on 12 July. The act criminalizes “a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation” if it places individuals who work with animals, or their families, in fear for their lives or safety. Federal judge Ronald Whyte of the Northern California district court in San Jose said that prosecutors had not explained what the activists had done to cross a line.

The prosecutors have the option to re-indict if they can be more explicit. But a lawyer for the activists suggests that the prosecutors’ vagueness on that first round was intentional: the specific actions, when set down in an indictment, might look suspiciously like ‘speech’ protected by the first amendment to the US constitution.

According to police reports, that speech allegedly involved shouting epithets at researchers on university campuses throughout California’s San Francisco Bay Area – “Vivisectors go to hell!” and “You’re a murderer!” being among the milder examples – writing slogans on the pavements outside researcher’s homes; wearing masks; and banging on doors.

Whatever one thinks about such behaviour, the US constitution does protect even offensive free speech. Lawyers, ethicists and the research community should look critically at the AETA. Does it make the line between protest and crime clearer or blurrier? Is it even necessary?

There is a case to be made that it is not. Animal-rights activists causing trouble for researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have been successfully dealt with using court injunctions and existing anti-stalking laws, for example.

But there are also arguments to be made in the AETA’s favour. According to Colin Blakemore, a University of Oxford neuroscientist with extensive and sometimes painful experience of the issues, similar laws enacted in the United Kingdom have been instrumental in raising awareness among police and prosecutors about the activists’ gruelling organized campaigns. And when enforcement against activists was tightened, the result was a general relaxation among researchers and a boom in communication and openness.

Whatever the merits of the AETA, having a clear distinction between legitimate and illegitimate tactics is in everyone’s best interest. Activists who want to protest legally need to know what is allowed, and researchers who wish to engage with legitimate animal-rights activists need to be able to recognize who they are.

Not every researcher believes that such engagement is worth pursuing, arguing that the minds of hard-core activists are already firmly made up. But engaging in dialogue with more moderate animal-rights groups – particularly young people who might otherwise, in the future, become further radicalized – can be mutually beneficial, demonstrating to everyone that the opposing side are not monsters.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, where cars have been set alight, homes flooded and razor blades sent in the post, the US branch of the animal-research defence group Pro-Test and the campus animal-rights club Bruins for Animals put together a panel on animal-research ethics in February. The event culminated in a joint statement condemning harassment and intimidation that had been directed at those who participated in the panel.

Such steps are to be applauded. When researchers and non-violent animal rights advocates air their differences by communicating with one another, the result can be more than just a feel-good exercise. If labs communicate, animal lovers can be convinced that not all research involving animals is torture. And if activists persuade rather than frighten, researchers can be motivated to rethink experimental design and reduce their reliance on animals.

Confirm first, forward later

OK.. so who’s dead now?

No one was immune to the buzz around Michael Jackson’s death last week. You had to have been living in some sort of bubble to not have heard the news.  You may have also noticed that the Prince of Pop’s death was followed by a flurry of rumours circulating around other celebrity deaths – the ‘newly dead’ included (but was not limited to) George Clooney, Jeff Goldblum and Natalie Portman (Just so you know, these latter three are all alive and well, thank you very much!)
Technology and tech applications (internet, cellular phones, Twitter, etc) make it easy for us to generate info bytes and circulate them in seconds – without second thought.  People often forward news bytes without first confirming their accuracy.

Take, for example, the ill-fated Air France flight 447 that went down off the coast of Brazil earlier this month. Soon after, an email was circulated with attached photos reportedly taken inside the craft as it was going down. Granted, they were interesting photos. They looked legit.

But think about it… IF, by some stretch of the imagination, a memory card from a camera WAS recovered from the crash site (highly improbable – it’s the ocean, folks!) – do you REALLY think that the ‘powers that be’ (i.e. investigative bodies from Air France) would release the photos to the public? Highly unlikely.What about the family members of those pictured in the photos? What a scandal! It would leave the airline culpable for the distribution of these (supposedly) genuine photos of passengers in peril.

Yet, technology cannot be held wholly responsible for these falsified reports.  I mean, the technology has proven to be extremely valuable tool in the political and civil upheavals in Iran of late. For the most part communication technologies are almost universally available and are being used to liberally circulate words, actions and activities (sanctioned, unsanctioned, legal and otherwise) that mark this historical time in the Middle East. Such communications enable those of us that are geographically removed from the situation to glean information about the goings-on beyond the 3 minute sound byte filter offered through the nightly news alone. Granted, the information may not always be accurate, it may be biased and in some instances extremist in nature…. But bear in mind that these are turbulent times.  Emotions are high.  And election outcomes, such as those in Iran, under such regimes are bound to be frought with anger and outrage. 

But, with a bit of logical thinking, one can glean a more realistic understanding of the situation. It is important to remember that ‘more’ doesn’t always equate to ‘better’… but it can represent a vast improvement over ‘limited’ and ‘filtered’ (i.e. media). There is no doubt, this spate of information brought to you by your communication tool of choice (cell, email, Twitter) represents a shift in how we communicate, in what we communicate and how we interact and exchange in society. Good or bad, filtering through this mass of information requires a level-head, an “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” approach to things – a healthy bit of cynicism. There are a myriad of supporting tools and search engines online to ‘check’ these seemingly ‘accurate’ reports: is a repository of urban legends and how these rumours come about and is another great resource.

So, for sanity’s sake – yours and whoever else you techno-communicate with… confirm first, forward later!!!!