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Do your homework before you apply FOIA

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | June 22, 2017

When I arrived in Berkeley in the 1973, the biggest show in town was the Watergate hearing. I admired the brilliant journalists uncovering the Watergate cover-up, and it led me to further admire America. I also learned that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is essential in sustaining the capabilities of free press. But, as I discovered recently like any other valuable tool, FOIA can be abused.

Few weeks ago, I received a letter informing me that Mr. Russell Carollo – who I discovered is a Pulitzer-winning author — wants access to all the records of private funding of my university research and all my communication related to GMOs and related topics. I can understand his motivation — I am a Berkeley professor and have written many articles on the economic, environmental and social gains provided by adoption of GMOs, and against excessive regulation of GMOs that have prevented many beneficial applications of the science, and practically the use of it to large companies. I even criticize organizations like Greenpeace for their irresponsible policy positions and tactics that prevented the availability of biotechnology solutions to people who may gain the most from them — and might have caused the suffering and death of many thousands. So, he might have suspected that I did it as a paid agent of Monsanto.

This suspicion is based on the belief that any scientist who writes about technology associated with a global company is bought by it. I am very troubled by President Trump calling the New York Times “fake media” and I perceive that in his own way Carollo sees me, or others like me, who write in support of controversial technologies that benefit major companies company as practitioners of “fake science” (or at least I am suspected as “guilty” until proven innocent).

As I learned, Carollo is influential and probably has many great achievements. But I worry that his suspicion of scientists working on contested topics is becoming part of America today. The same attitude may even be contributing to the wide spread skepticism about climate change.

But this attitude is dangerous and reflects a misunderstanding about the way that science works. It is dangerous because if the capable people are scared off from working with, say, companies like Monsanto, who will assure the safety and quality of their product, and use science competently? However they are perceived, Monsanto products are widely used, and it is essential that they benefit consumers. But I worry more about the basic misunderstanding of the way science works. Frequently, scientists make discoveries, and economists reach conclusions, much before the companies. One of the strengths of America is the educational-industrial complex, where university innovations are privatized and frequently the scientists that come up with the innovation are part of the commercialization. Most of the companies in biotechnology, including Genentech, Amgen, etc, and major information technology companies, evolved this way. Similarly, economists, like myself, have studied the economics of biotechnology and reached conclusions about its beneficial potential long ago. Thus if a company wants an academic to work for them, why wouldn’t they approach someone who has already shown positive findings about the technology?

In 1992 I coauthored the paper The advent of biotechnology and technology transfer in agriculture which was published in 1993, and in 1994 I initiated and co-edited a special issue of a journal on Biotechnology and the future of agriculture and natural resources . From first principles, my papers foresaw the value of agricultural biotechnology and suggested guidelines for intellectual property policy and regulations that would allow the technology to meet its potential. I wrote this with no or minimum awareness of Monsanto and their activities. My work over the years supported their positions, but it was mine without inducement or support of any of the companies. If a biotechnology company would have asked me to testify on their behalf, I would do it willingly (and be happy to get paid for my time and efforts), but I will cling to my truth. I have expressed views that are against the interest of the company. For example, I argued that the current tough regulatory environment benefited major multinationals, and strongly advocated that the intellectual property and access to biotechnology should be widely available.

As I mentioned I came to appreciate agricultural biotechnology before it was “cool” or “controversial” and many of my perspectives were formed before much of the industry was there. Of course, I have learned from experience and new information, but these first principles still hold. Basically, biotechnology is not a silver bullet, but rather an essential part of a diversified farming system, and can, and already has, contribute to increase crop biodiversity, and the well-being of farmers, consumers, and the poor.

Compliance with the FOIA of Mr. Carollo will take time and effort. It takes him a few minutes to write the request and it will take me much time and digging to respond. The right to request a FOIA is a privilege, and as a professional he needs to use carefully. In my view, he needed to put some time to learn about the subject of his inquiry before he presents his legal but costly demand.

Googling my name he could have easily discovered Were you paid by Monsanto? • The Berkeley Blog, where I state that I received $10,000 for reviewing some papers for Monsanto (out of millions of dollars of support grants for my research over the years from many sources). He would have known that I have made many contributions to support environmental causes. He could even have called or emailed me — my phone number (510-290-9515) and email (zilber11@Berkeley.edu) are available on my website – and he would have better knowledge about his “suspect.” If after this initial and more personal investigation he would have asked me to provide him with information, I would have been happy to oblige according to the FOIA.

I am left with a feeling of disappointment in our culture of confrontation and lack of collegiality. I hope that journalists and in fact, all citizens, will realize that we in academia are dedicated to the truth as much as they are — and while there may be rotten apples in each profession, they should know us better before they burden us. In a way FOIA is like GMOs, a very valuable tool, which has to be applied with care.

Comments to “Do your homework before you apply FOIA

  1. I would love to see you vent some of your frustration on the small number of researchers whose failure to live up to our ideals make this kind of burdensome oversight mechanism necessary. Is it the central authorities who are making your life more difficult, or is it the outliers among researchers who have to ruin the fun for the rest of us?

    The rules are there for our protection.

  2. David, well written. I share your concerns and would also love critics first try to talk with us before getting out the hammer. Unfortunately, many are more driven by sensationalism than realism and sniff conspiracy at every corner. If they would attend the ICABR meetings, they could see how much we care about the facts, how far away we are from any conspiracy. The FOIA is a powerful tool and needs to be used carefully otherwise it will wear-out and become useless.

  3. A well-written and balanced essay on a frustrating situation. I’ll share this widely, David, and hope that others do the same.

  4. To my friend David,
    I have been away from the U.S. for too long to appreciate all of the ethical and legal ramifications regarding a FOIA request. As a (former) head of the Amazon Biotechnology Center (CBA) in Manaus, I had the “priviledge” of stopping everything that I was doing to answer Brazilian FOIAs (by law here I could not question the FOIA applicants’ motives). The issue that I have is that this is an institutional matter. As a UC Berkeley grad I seem to recall Monsanto, Genentech plaques plastered on the walls of Latimer and other Halls and Institutes at Cal. Do you work in an institution that does not have ties do biotech? Should you have to answer alone to your institutions close ties to biotech?
    Congratulations to you for defending agrobiotechnology and plant biotechnology. These fields may yet save the Amazon forest where extraction is rampant and very, very little is sustainably extracted. Cloning of Amazon economic and wood species is an urgent need to, yes, save the forest from the fabrications of commercial websites. We don’t have those data on the sustainability hypothesis for these species.

  5. Search for “FOIA Professor” and you will get a very long list of similar requests to professors at universities all across the country.
    Each major University will need a designated, trained invidividual to respond to FOIA requests.
    Undoubtedly the final parameters will be determined by court decisions probably up to and including each state’s Supreme Court.
    Professor Zilberman, you can’t be expected to handle this by yourself.

  6. What a frustrating thing to have to comply with. I’m sure it will take an enormous amount of time, and the reporter is probably hoping for some big story that he will not find. It’s unfortunate that he did this instead of reaching out. It seems like it’s a strategy being used by both sides. Scientists who work on climate change have also been targeted by right-wing groups and politicians. Very frustrating in all cases.

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