Setting a New Standard for Science Transparency

Things have been a little intense lately and the little voice in my head keeps begging, "How did I get here?" In other times of quiet introspection the little voice in my head says, "What would you have done differently?" What the heck happened?
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Things have been a little intense lately and the little voice in my head keeps begging, "How did I get here?"

In other times of quiet introspection the little voice in my head says, "What would you have done differently?"

What the heck happened?

Over the last several months I've been caught in the hot whirlwind of what has ballooned into a national discussion. In brief, I'm a scientist committed to the public understanding of science, particularly the practice called, "genetic engineering", or more commonly "GMOs". For over fifteen years I've described the strengths and limitations of the technology, focusing mostly on the evidence from the peer-reviewed literature that describes it as one important tool in our scientific toolbox, a component that can address at least a subset of agricultural concerns.

The good news is that sober science from a knowledgeable source can change minds. As a teacher, it warms my heart to know that people are listening and learning, and I spend a lot of my professional and personal time sharing the science. However, effective communication tends to jump to unappreciative ears, and my words have raised the ire of others that may not understand, and in many cases oppose, implementation of this technology.

At times I have made some critical mistakes that have only made this latter situation worse. I realize that there are many things I could have done differently.

I want to share these thoughts for two reasons. It might help others from repeating my errors. But most importantly, it is a way for me to say that I recognize my shortcomings, as a scientist and a communicator, but also as a person. The central mistake was underestimating the importance of a donation from Monsanto to my science communication program, and its perception with the public. To me, it was certainly proper and important to the program, as it allowed me to do more outreach in science literacy.

But did I extend that value to others? When people would ask me about Monsanto, I'd simply reply, "I don't work with them" or "They don't sponsor my research". Both statements are true. More importantly, both statements are the most telling questions a scientist can answer--Who are your collaborators? Who pays for your lab's work?

And in this regard, the critical day-to-day functions of my lab and my personal compensation certainly have always been 100% Monsanto-free.

But while it is a true answer, is that the correct answer? Would I stop there if asked the same question now? Absolutely not.

If we are going to talk about championing science in an open and honest fashion, we need to be sensitive to the fact that everyone involved wants to know every last detail. Even something as simple as single reimbursed travel cost or a picked-up dinner tab is a red flag to many. Right or wrong, we need to anticipate and respect the feelings of those individuals, and by not providing that information it stops them from assessing the situation on their terms. Furthermore, if such reimbursements are discovered through later means, they appear deceptive, even if they are normal and customary.

In my efforts, I have been more transparent than just about anyone else in the GMO dialog. My presentations are online, and I freely provide any references. I have followed every convention for proper disclosure and conflict of interest. That is not a question.

However, even with this openness, I'm going to propose that full disclosure isn't enough. Disclosure needs move beyond appropriate, and now be impeccably clear and obvious. Omission impossible.

So if you asked me about funding from Monsanto today, I'll refer to the one time they reimbursed me for my exact costs incurred for traveling to speak to farmers in Colorado last year. I'd mention that they once donated to my science communication program, but the funds were not used and transferred to a charity. I'd talk about friends and former students in the company and the fact that I've been there twice to share my ideas on reaching a concerned public better about concepts in biotech. That's something I like to do, and something they need to do better, so we share that common concern. I'd mention ever detail for the sake of ultimate transparency.

While some may feel such overtures are extreme, I feel they are appropriate and necessary. We are in a conversation where if we are going to make any headway, more information is critical to building trust. It is a time for greater transparency, even if at the expense of quantity of information exchanged. I now understand that the message means more if it the motives and connections of the speaker are known, even if they are not understood.

How do we all refocus this conversation? I'll be the first to say, this is not about me and not about scientists, activists or those hot in the discussion. This is about a technology that we know can solve problems for people and the environment, and maybe a convention revision in our transparency can help get us there faster.

It starts with me. I have gone back into my records for over two years and now provide a complete accounting of my outreach and extension activities. You'll find how much I was reimbursed for airfare, who paid for the rental car, and who bought the dinner. You'll see how much was offered as an honorarium or speaker fee, and where that money went. The painstaking detail is necessary, and I think defines a new standard of transparency and a new tool to cultivate trust. You can download the information here. While it is not complete yet, the main ideas are there, and it will be completed soon and updated at least bi-monthly. This is my promise, and a new transparency standard.

I feel very good about this, and am pleased to provide this information so that you can know me better, see my extensive body of outreach work, and get to know those that support my efforts.

My hope is that more academics might adopt a similar standard. Even more widely, let's encourage all players in the current public discussion of biotechnology to reach a similar level of honest openness. That's something we should all strive for, no matter what the position in this discussion, for or against the technology, academic or NGO employee, corporate PR person or jet-setting activist. I learned the hard way that we can do this the wrong way, and let's give the audience of this critical discussion the clarity and context they deserve.

It took me a long time of walking in circles before realizing how recent events could have been addressed better. If my goal is to be a trusted speaker, I need to be impeccably beyond transparent, and this new system should provide that. Putting all of my information out there is strangely freeing, as now others might stop sleuthing for clandestine influence, and join me in focusing on how we are going to solve problems in agriculture and global food security.

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