Public perception matters in the research enterprise. Some surprising history. Back to school…and school lunches are in the news.
Are scientists who collaborate with industry tainted? Last weekend’s New York Times report by Eric Lipton has sparked a great deal of discussion about GMOs and organics. Lipton’s piece details how Monsanto and the food industry enlisted academics in GMO advocacy efforts. The article also discusses the same “3rd-party” advocacy approach on the organics side of the debate. Per Lipton, emails obtained show the relationship between some university researchers and company officials, although there is no evidence that research was compromised.
Lipton’s article raises important questions about the ethical relationship between science and industry. On Tuesday, I wrote this: “This is an issue that is larger than the GMOs/organics debate. It speaks to the role that academics and researchers play in explaining science, extending information and lending their expertise to shape public policy.”
Nathanel Johnson of Grist weighs in with a smart, balanced piece that discusses the specific situation raised in Lipton’s article, but also explores issues about research funding, conflicts of interest and ethics. Johnson has previously interviewed both Kevin Folta and Chuck Benbrook (they are discussed in Lipton’s New York Times piece). Johnson spoke with both of them again, after the New York Times piece was published. Folta shared something important with Johnson: “His real error, he said, was failing to see that public perception mattered: He should have taken the time to lay out his dealings with Monsanto because people care intensely about that particular company.” Collaboration with industry is a regular part of life for university scientists and researchers; as Johnson notes, it’s “literally in the job description of many public scientists.”
I have two big takeaways (really just reminders of what I already know). Johnson makes the points well in his piece. 1) Perception matters. A perceived conflict of interest is important, too. 2) Per Johnson: “…it’s also useful to know when people are getting paid.”
Johnson truly understands the research enterprise. This piece should be required reading for all scientists and researchers, but especially those employed in public settings. This is one of the best pieces I’ve read in a long time.
“A boring post with quiet opinions.” Tufts University professor and food policy wonk Parke Wilde pens an interesting post about GMOs. “The current state of argument over GMOs in the United States is like a hurricane, blowing first one way and then the other, yielding nothing but destruction.”
History. Still marveling over Lisa Morehouse’s piece about the Filipino-Americans who led the historic Delano grape strike fifty years ago, in the vineyards of California’s Central Valley. The strike set into motion the modern farm worker movement. A must-read (maybe more than once). The piece appears on KQED, and was produced for California Foodways in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Morehouse produces California Foodways, which “explores the intersections of food, culture, economics, history and labor.”
Another bit about history worth noting. UC Santa Barbara anthropologists Amber M. VanDerwarker and Gregory D. Wilson have written a book that explores the consequences of food insecurity in ancient warfare. “The Archaeology of Food and Warfare: Food Insecurity in Prehistory” considers “how food shaped warfare and the broader impacts of shortages on societies around the world.” The authors provide 11 case studies from around the globe, including one from the villages of the Central Illinois River Valley, where constant warfare in the 13th century forced a shift from subsistence foraging to cultivating crops. Jim Logan reports for The Current.
School lunches. Busy week on this front. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to a webcast audience about the national school lunch program. Shorter: Stay the course on healthier school meals. Bettina Elias Siegel sums it up beautifully in this post, appearing on The Lunch Tray blog. And a new California Matters video debuts. It’s the sixth in the series about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating being produced by Mark Bittman and the University of California, as part of UC’s Global Food Initiative.
Have a great day!