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Post Removed by PLOS – The Fight Over Transparency: Round Two


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PLOS Blogs is, and will continue to be, a forum that allows scientists to debate controversial topics. However, given additional information for further inquiry and analysis, PLOS has determined that the Biologue post that had occupied this page, “The Fight over Transparency: Round Two,” was not consistent with at least the spirit and intent of our community guidelines. PLOS has therefore decided to remove the post, while leaving the comments on it intact. We believe that this topic is important and that it should continue to be discussed and debated, including on PLOS blogs and in PLOS research articles.

We sincerely apologize for any distress that the content of this post caused any individual. Comments and questions can be sent to

  1. I am the reporter–Keith Kloor–who authored both the Science and Nature GMO-related pieces discussed in this post.

    I will limit my brief comments to the discussion of those pieces. For readers interested in a response to Thacker and Seife’s broader criticisms of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), see this rebuttal from Aaron Huertas, the UCS science communication officer.

    I’ll just note that Huertas asserts: “…in making their argument, they [Thacker and Seife] neglected some specifics and misrepresented UCS’s work.”

    You can judge for yourself after reading the Huertas rebuttal.

    Alas, I feel strongly that Thacker and Seife similarly misrepresented my reporting by suggesting that I had left key information out of both my stories.

    For example, when first discussing my six-month old Science piece, Thacker and Seife write:

    “A journalist reporting on this FOIA request in Science noted that the Organic Consumers Association funds the U.S Right to Know and that many of the scientists targeted are involved with a website called GMO Answers. He did not mention that GMO Answers is run by the PR firm Ketchum, on behalf of GMO companies.”

    The suggestion here is that I did not let readers know that the GMO Answers website was a creation of the biotech industry. In fact, here’s what I wrote in my piece:

    “It [U.S. Right to Know] has targeted only researchers who have written articles posted on GMO Answers, a website backed by food and biotechnology firms…”

    I did not know at this time, in February of 2015, that a public relations firm was running the daily operations of the site. But what I did know is that GMO Answers was a product of the biotechnology industry, and this information was included in my piece.

    Further down in the blog post, in discussing my Nature piece, Thacker and Seife write that my Nature piece does not mention an email titled, “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” which they don’t quote from, but paraphrase, in their words, as an email “from the researcher [Kevin Folta] to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.”

    This is inaccurate. The said email with the subject heading, “Confidential: Coalition Update” was written by a Monsanto representative and forwarded to Folta by another Monsanto representative.

    In any case, what Thacker and Seife are suggesting here is that again, I left out some key piece of information to the story. In fact, I’ve read all the emails and in my reporting, I made a judgement–along with my editors–that the most newsworthy information in the emails for Nature readers was, among other things, the $25 thousand grant Folta received from Monsanto for public outreach work, the travel reimbursements from the biotech industry for his appearances at various events, and the suggested answers for the industry-funded website from the PR group.

    In assessing my stories for Science and Nature, I would have appreciated if Thacker and Seife did not make disingenuous claims with their own selective omissions and misrepresentations.

  2. Are you concerned about the side effects of this kind of “weaponized” FOIA, as PEER calls them? I have heard from upstanding public servants that this kind of stuff is such a drag that even though they have no conflict, they don’t want to deal with this kind of harassment.

    They will leave and go to private companies, or private foundations, or whatever. We’ll lose good people to public service from this.

    Another side effect could be that corporate money flows to private institutions–which already have more money than cash-starved public schools. And not because there’s anything wrong with state research. They just won’t want to be dragged into the attempted mucking that activists want to do.

    I wonder: has anyone looked at FOIAs (or state equivalents) where there was no drama? How much of that is there? I haven’t seen any kind of figure on that. You know–it’s like the negative clinical trial data. It’s missing from the discussion.

  3. The accounts herein concerning the University of Florida professor (me) are a blatant misrepresentation of fact. The authors have the “CONFIDENTIAL” email in their possession, acting in collusion with activist groups, and the details do not in any way match with their allegations. The authors did not contact me for clarification or information, and simply posted this false, defamatory opinion. The email note, along with the truth about the situation may be found at:

    Kevin Folta

  4. Could the authors of this blog publish the alleged ‘confidential’ email in its entirety?
    That would include the fact that it wasn’t created by Folta, but forwarded to him.
    Or would that not support their biased viewpoint?

  5. Would the editors allow Folta the right to reply with his own blog too? Surely that’s only fair and transparent.

  6. “Weaponized FOIA” is a very appropriate term for the FOIA harassment tactic devised by Gary Ruskin and his organic industry backers. Very simply this is “Asymmetric Warfare” against public scientists. The attackers have whatever resources they may need – funding for public relations firms and lawyers. Dr. Folta has only his own personal resources to defend his reputation.

    I am especially outraged at this harassment for alleged lack of transparency. I have been reading Dr. Folta for around a decade. Why? Because when I undertook to understand the risks and benefits of modern agriculture my first task was to identify scientists that I could trust. My doctorate is Computer Science – with no training in molecular biology or horticulture. But I know how to find expertise in other fields. I find some candidate scientists that look to be credible, then put some hours into Google Scholar looking for papers and citations. It’s not rocket science to discover the researchers who have the respect of their colleagues. Then over time it’s a matter of looking at the quality and logical consistency of arguments.

    For example, early on I found Penn State molecular biologist Nina Federoff. Looking at her work and CV I noted that she was a recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science. Perhaps she is a pretty good choice for a scientist to trust. By following her citations to the work of other scientists a web of references develops. That’s how I came across prof. Kevin Folta.

    Dr. Folta is very unusual in the research community because he invests a quite remarkable amount of unpaid effort into science communications. RSS is your friend for harvesting information generated by scientists like Dr. Folta who publish frequently on a personal blog, give public lectures, record podcasts, etc. All of the writing and presenting that I found – you can find too. If you do that you will quickly confirm my finding that Dr. Folta is objective and transparent to a level that sets a standard for the rest of us to live up to.

    From my experience it is very clear why interests that want to push an anti-science agenda will want to discredit Dr. Folta. Hence the Asymmetric Warfare on his reputation. You can verify my claim by reading his blog Illumination and listening to his new podcast“Talking Biotech”. If you do that you will see that this man is not a shill for any special interest. He is exactly the sort of objective scientist that you are looking for.

    There are misrepresentations in this post that need to be promptly corrected. Dr. Folta has written a brief summary at Science20 Transparency Weaponized Against Scientists”.

  7. This is wonderful: “The said email with the subject heading, “Confidential: Coalition Update” was written by a Monsanto representative and forwarded to Folta by another Monsanto representative.”

  8. I should be grateful if you would allow me, as Dr Willie Soon’s lead author in the paper for the Science Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences that led to a recent co-ordinated and cruel hate campaign against him by various left-leaning newspapers, to correct various libels that your correspondent has lifted from those newspapers without having bothered to check any of the salient facts.

    First, Dr Soon is not and has never been a “denier of climate change”, whether “prominent” or otherwise. The paper we co-authored makes it explicit that all of us, as co-authors, recognize that our returning to the atmosphere some minuscule fraction of the 7 micromoles per mole of CO2 once resident therein may, all other things being equal, make the weather somewhat warmer.
    At present, however, to the nearest tenth of one per cent, there is no CO2 in the atmosphere at all: the concentration has risen from 0.3 micromoles per mole at the beginning of the industrial revolution to a scarcely terrifying 0.4 micromoles per mole today. And the CO2 forcing is logarithmic, so that each additional molecule by which we enrich the atmosphere and elevate the net primary productivity of global vegetation causes less warming (though more greening) than its predecessor.

    On the IPCC’s RCP 6.0 “business-almost-as-usual” scenario, there will be 2.75 Watts per square meter of net anthropogenic forcing from 2015-2100. The instantaneous warming from this forcing will be 0.9 K and, allowing for the IPCC’s new and much reduced central estimate of 1.5 Watts per square meter of temperature feedback, the equilibrium warming will be 1.6 K. However, only 65% of equilibrium warming will occur after 85 years, reducing the 21st-century warming to 1 K, of which only 0.5 K, will occur by 2100 because the anthropogenic forcing will arise not as a single pulse today but at an approximately linear rate over the century.

    Pointing out that mainstream climate science thus indicates that a very small and harmless new anthropogenic warming can be expected this century is not a denial of climate science but a demonstration of it.

    Secondly, Dr Soon did not “fail to disclose conflicts of interest in nearly a dozen papers stemming from $1.2 million in funding from oil industry and global-warming denying funding sources”. For a start, Dr Soon received little more than one-third of the $1.2 million, and that small sum was spread over more than a decade. He would have been better off flipping burgers.
    To put this trifling sum into context, two other Harvard researchers recently wrote a paper praising the EPA’s anti-coal regulations to the skies. Those two researchers had received between them not $1 million but $35 million, and their sponsor was the very institution that their paper praised – the EPA. At the time when they were writing the paper, the EPA was feeding them information and the lead author was asking the EPA for still more money. The authors, whose conflict of interest was material and substantial, did not declare it. Instead, they conspired with Harvard University to issue a press release falsely stating that the paper had been “independent”. And what did your reporter have to say about that real and serious conflict of interest? Not a word. Why this disfiguring double standard? Is it, perhaps, because the two Harvard researchers who had trousered $35 million from the EPA were toeing the Party Line to which your partisan reporter subscribes, while Dr Soon, a true scientist, dares to think for himself?

    What is more, the “failure to disclose conflicts of interest” that your lazy and prejudiced reporter libelled against Dr Soon was attributable solely to Dr Soon’s employers, the Smithsonian Observatory, who alone were responsible for negotiating with a single sponsor a contract stipulating that the sponsor’s name was not to be publicly mentioned. Dr Soon, as an employee of the Smithsonian, was obliged by employment and contract law to comply with the contractual obligation of confidentiality.

    Thirdly, the sponsor of the $1.2 million was not, as your careless reporter suggests, multiple sources but one source. Nor was the source an “oil industry source” but an electricity generating company. Nor can that company be fairly described as “global-warming-denying”.

    Fourthly, your reporter repeats a widespread and particularly stupid libel to the effect that Dr Soon’s description of some of his papers as “deliverables” in annual reports to his sponsor somehow indicates a financial conflict of interest. In fact, the word “deliverables” is a standard accounting term. If a sponsor decides to provide financial support for a researcher, its auditors will expect evidence that the researcher is actually engaged in research. Any papers published by that researcher may accordingly be listed as “deliverables”: but the use of that term does not in any way indicate that the researcher was influenced by the sponsor to take any particular line in his papers: and it is self-evident that none of the papers written by Dr Soon conveyed any particular benefit to the sponsor – quite unlike the two Harvard researchers who were being directly influenced by repeated contact with the EPA and were asking it for more money at the time when they were writing a paper which was intended to be of direct benefit to it, in that the paper praised its proposed regulations.
    Your relentlessly prejudiced reporter then falsely alleges that Dr Soon was involved in “pushing” a “fake scandal”. This libel, too, reveals far more about the intellectual bankruptcy of your reporter than it does about Dr Soon. For the Climategate affair was a real scandal. It revealed systemic corruption over a decade on the part of a small clique of hard-Left climate scientists who had tampered with evidence, withheld scientific methods, programs, data, and results from other researchers wishing to verify their work, bullied journal editors, and conspired to evade their disclosure obligations under freedom-of-information legislation, all with the aim of falsely exaggerating the extent of the imagined (and imaginary) threat of global warming.

    The vicious combination of lies, half-truths, smears and inaccuracies perpetrated by your reporter constitute a grave libel of Dr Soon in his calling (your lawyers will tell you what this means and how serious it is). If, therefore, this posting that sets the record straight is altered or deleted without consent, proceedings for libel will be instituted without further notice. Perhaps your reporter had better go to a re-education camp to learn how to tell the truth.

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