The Kevin Folta I Know – And What About That Industry Money?

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Kevin Folta and a on-campus sign promoting his talk to an event organized by undergraduate students at the University of Guelph.

I first met Kevin Folta almost five years ago when he spoke in a livestock pavilion in the small Ontario ag-college town of Ridgetown on the topic, science and public perceptions. I’d puzzled, how could a horticultural researcher from Florida connect with an audience of mainly corn-soybean-wheat-livestock farmers a thousand miles further north. But connect he did and connect so well, using language free from academic jargon, focusing on fact not rhetoric, using a low-key, unassuming manner – in flawless delivery without a speaking note.

The next came in late 2016 when, thanks to some inadequate coordination by the respective organizers, Kevin Folta spent five days in/near Guelph to speak at separate undergrad and grad student events and a provincial conference on crop pest management, with a long-weekend coming in the middle. I was a participant at two of these events and his host for much of the weekend. I came to know a humble person, without a hint of complaint about the inefficient use of his time, and eager to interact with students and others in the audiences and in the pub before or afterwards. We visited Mike Dixon’s lab in Guelph and travelled to a floral greenhouse near Vineland and Niagara Falls; that’s where I realized that his personal research was on light quality effects on plant morphology – highly important to his greenhouse host, but quite removed from the world of genetically modified crops. Folta had no reason to give a damn about the well-being of field crop growers or food consumers in Canada. But he was in Ontario for that purpose because he cared.

His message in the three talks (all distinctly different but with a common theme) was about finding common ground with those of differing views, and about sticking to good science in messaging. Though Folta had ample reason to be bitter and vindictive, given the way he had been attacked by so many including a lead story in the New York Times, he was the reverse. He said he’d spent years in attack mode only to learn that this approach didn’t work. He’d concluded that simple, objective explanations, which acknowledged credible arguments by opponents, could work better, and that’s the Folta we saw in Guelph.

I discovered afterwards that Folta had spent part of a weekend afternoon in Guelph meeting a local, well-known anti-GM opponent in the hotel coffee shop. He thought that was a fair thing to do. His reward was to have her condemn his integrity in social media afterward.

My last direct contact came in June last year when Folta was among other public researchers who participated in a biotech conference at Guelph. He travelled via Buffalo airport and hitched a ride to Guelph, versus a more direct flight to Toronto, in order to keep his travel costs down for organizers. His message in Guelph was the same: finding common ground where possible with opponents, taking the high road, sticking to scientifically credible arguments. When he left for his ride back to Buffalo airport, I said goodbye to a good friend and someone who I continue to hold in the highest regard.

So what about the flurry of high-profile public criticisms about this man in social media and elsewhere?

I’m not talking about attacks by anti-GM advocacy groups – they recognize Folta’s effectiveness in communication and are committed to undermining this in any way possible – but rather those coming from individuals who would seem to be allies.

I have not followed all the nitty details and claims nor do I intend to. I gather that he claimed no travel support from Monsanto for travel to GM-related events in Hawaii when some financing likely came from a general donation from that company to the University of Florida. Though I’ve seen no evidence that this money affected his messaging, his claim was likely an error in judgment.

Recently he’s been accused of not disclosing some work he did in reviewing data for a law firm likely linked to Bayer. Again no evidence that this affected messaging or research integrity. I am not sure that, in the same situation, I would have felt the need for public disclosure either.  He did inform his dean as required.

If there was a serious ethical misstep, in my view it is that of two research colleagues who apparently filed a Freedom of Access to Information request to the University of Florida without telling Folta, found reference to the law firm incident, and informed the world via a high-profile blog.

There are also allegations of personal indiscretions but I’ll not go there. They are personal and if they do involve violations of ethics and law, there are proper procedures for punishment and redress.

In total, what this tells me that Folta is not a saint but human like everyone else – but with the misfortune to have his acknowledged or alleged flaws broadcast to the world – a direct consequence of his high effectiveness as a communicator and agricultural advocate, for sure.

Before closing, I’d like to address the issue of industry connections for university and other public scientists. There seems to be an attitude that if you accept industry money for anything or – even worse – work for industry, you are somehow a lesser creature with lower credibility and standard of integrity. I know agricultural researchers at the University of Guelph (the ag university I know best) who will not accept any industry money, some even refusing to use departmental facilities funded by industry.  They see this as a higher level of purity (usually coupled with the good fortunate to work in a subject area which government views as a priority for funding).

I view them with contempt.

I have worked in academia, as well as for farm and other industry organizations; I’ve interacted closely with many government researchers, administrators and politicians; and my wife and I have run our own small farming business for 46 years. I have seen not an iota of evidence that employees in industry operate with less integrity than those with public salaries.

Did Dr. Cami Ryan become less ethical when she left the University of Saskatchewan to join Monsanto? Did Dr. Mary Dell Chilton, co-winner of a recent World Food Prize, lower her ethical standards when she left Washington University for industry a few decades earlier? The same for four of my former faculty associates in the Department of Crop Science at Guelph who left academia for positions in plant breeding companies about the same time as I left to work for a farm group.

The answer is an emphatic NO in all cases. Those professionals and hundreds more like them are every bit as committed to the welfare of agriculture, farmers, consumers, natural environment and global well-being as their academic or other public counterparts. Of course, they have conflicts. But those same conflicts apply equally for public researchers who take certain positions (whether they secretly agree or not) to be seen as being on the side of public opinion, or to get tenure or promotion, or – usually more importantly – to be competitive for public grant money.

As a farmer, I see it as positive when a public researcher has worked with industry – using industry money to pay for research and other operating costs as the need arises. That experience is worth far more than any so-called purity associated ‘I-won’t-accept-industry-money’ mentality. I make my judgments about people, now as a full-time farmer, just as I did as a farm organization executive, and a university prof before that – based on the experience of the person, consistency with good science, and my judgment of personal integrity – but not based on who paid for what.

To be complete, there is one difference between public and private that I must mention: I do find a tendency for greater arrogance among those in public versus those in private employ. Some of the former can be quite annoying with their auras of self-importance. Fortunately, this tendency involves only a small minority.

But now back to Kevin Folta.

Folta is an outstanding individual and agriculture has benefitted so greatly from his communication skills and personal commitment. He did not need to voice a public word of support for genetic engineering of farm/food crops, but he has done so repeatedly at great personal cost – and I for one am most grateful.

We’ve also learned that he’s human.

I’ve watched a greater tendency for him of late to engage repeatedly and publicly with many critics – understandable but of questionable effectiveness or value. Folta might be advised to read Mark Lynas’ comments in Seeds of Science on how he handles the same. (Lynas mostly says nothing.) Or better, to heed Winston Churchill’s sage advice, “You will never get to the end of the journey if you stop to shy a stone at every dog that barks.”

Thanks Kevin.

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