November 1, 2015

A few weeks back I did a blog about academics and their relationships with big players in the food industry. My point was that we really shouldn’t be shocked, shocked (quoting Captain Louis Renault from Casablanca) when we learn that university scientists share the values and perspectives of major food industry firms. It was, in a twisted sense perhaps, just what Abraham Lincoln had in mind. I’m headed to a philosophy conference on industry/university science relationships down in South Bend, IN later this week, so the story is on my mind.

As it happens, I talked to a reporter named Brooke Borel about this, and she sent me a link to the story that she eventually wrote for Buzzfeed. It’s pretty interesting and I recommend following the link that I embedded in the date text above. For some unexplained reason, the robots at WordPress aren’t letting me embed a link in the right place when I work on my Mac. Must be one of those Cupertino rivalry things.

In a nutshell, a University of Florida plant scientist named Kevin Folta had been running a podcast under the penname “ Vern Blazek.” In one episode, Blazek interviewed Folta. Borel wonders if this is deceptive. There’s also the point about the Borel/Folta “interview” being rather positive (that’s putting it mildly, I think) about GMOs. Then Folta denies any relationship with industry, but it turns out (according to Borel) that Monsanto had given him an unrestricted grant of $25,000. Borel wonders if this, too, is deceptive.

Now to put this in perspective, $25,000 is, on the one hand, not an awfully lot of money in the world of grants. It costs us almost $40,000 to support a graduate student for a year, and this is before we spend a dime on any of the research that they would be doing. On the other hand, any kind of unrestricted grant is rather rare, and $25,000 unrestricted dollars can be paired with other more restricted funds in a manner that benefits a researcher pretty substantially. So I’m at something of a loss to make any sense of how Folta could have denied having a relationship with industry. It’s pretty clear to me that Monsanto was telling him, “Hey, we like you,” and given that, it’s not really all that much of a stretch to think that Folta’s use of his alter ego Blazek was a way of saying “Hey, I like you back.”

What about that penname thing? Some time back, a University of Colorado political scientist named Ward Churchill was charged with misconduct because (among other things) he had actually written some of the essays that appeared with other author’s names in books he had (nominally) edited. Churchhill was a) a very controversial activist in support of Native Americans and other marginalized groups and b) eventually fired. Now the Churchill story is pretty convoluted so Google him if you want the background. I mention him as a contrast case to Folta primarily to show that academics with very different political leanings produce written work that they prefer to have attributed to some identity other than themselves.

I’ve thought about it. I once entertained fantasies of writing a book I would call How to Cheat at College. It would in fact recount some of the cheating techniques I’ve actually seen, but it also would have had a subliminal argument that would have led readers to think through whether cheating on class assignments and examinations wasn’t really just a way of cheating themselves. Of course, such a book might have caused me some embarrassment, because you can be sure that the average TV or radio journalist would not have been able to figure out what I was really up to. And there was also the chance that I might actually make some serious money (like more than $25,000) off such an effort. How could an ethics professor stand that kind of publicity? I wasn’t about to do something like that under my own name!

Well, I never got around to it, in any case. Eventually I did think about writing something that would have a life beyond just being a tickbox on my annual report. That was about six years ago when I started writing the Thornapple Blog on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2009. I suppose if I had been really smart, I would have used a false name and asked Monsanto for an unrestricted grant so I could keep doing it. What do you think they would have said?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


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