FOIA. It’s the New Four-Letter Word.

Posted on August 03, 2016

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Several weeks ago, I was notified by my alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan (U of S), that the US Right to Know (USRTK) had submitted an Access To Information Act (ATIP) request seeking the production of documents pertaining to “…Camille (Cami) D. Ryan, formerly a professional associate in the Department of Bioresource Policy Business and Economics at the College of Agriculture."

I was not surprised. Why? For the past year or more, I watched this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issue unfold. High profile academics working in agricultural research and outreach all over North America, and their home institutions, were subjected to public records requests from USRTK. I have had close working relationships with only a few of these academics. One is my former PhD supervisor, some have been co-authors on articles or chapters, others I have had the opportunity to meet/work with at conferences or other science-related events. Many I haven’t even met while others I have only connected with in passing. I know them all by reputation. These academics are credible, public sector scientists with decades of experience working in agriculture-related research. They are plant and animal geneticists, political economists, plant breeders, microbiologists, etc., who – through their work – are making significant steps forward in crop research, varietal development, and in how our food is produced and distributed in the world. While I recognize that I am just a ‘small fish’ in a ‘large pond’ of brilliant academics, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I received a request due to these connections that I have and (more likely) to my recent move to Monsanto.

What the FOIA?!
FOIA and its Canadian equivalent, ATIP, are laws enacted to allow for the full or partial disclosure of documents controlled by government organizations (including public sector universities). These laws and the ‘request mechanisms’ are intended to protect public interest by ensuring that public sector organizations and those that are employed by them are operating on the up-and-up. Quite simply, they are accountability mechanisms.

Early last year, 14 US scientists were targeted with FOIA records requests. As of now, that number has risen to well over 40 and more recent efforts have expanded into multiple rounds of searches of emails requested by not only USRTK, but other NGOs, activists, and journalists as well. All are intent on looking for “nefarious” connections linking public sector researchers with corporations and other industry organizations.

Let’s be clear. Relationships between academics and industry do exist. I have blogged about the Genome Canada model here. Few, if any, academics would apologize for these kinds of interactions. In the agriculture sector, academic-industry connections have led to important changes in the food security system, to the development of better crop varieties, and other innovations that have social and economic value. The impetus behind this is laid out in the Morill Act (Steve Savage talks in more detail about that here) with the stated purpose for Land Grant universities to promote research, education, and outreach in the “agricultural and industrial arts”.  Yes, outreach. The relationships between the public and private sectors are part of this mission to ensure that socially and economically valuable innovations reach the people who need them.
 
FOIA Me. FOIA You.
The tidy little package that the USRTK will receive from the U of S will consist of only 168 pages of emails sourced from my account via the university server. These emails were generated based upon a search (17 search terms identified by USRTK such as “Monsanto”, “Syngenta”, “BASF”, “Ketchum”, etc.) of my email folders covering the two-year span of time from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013 (when my research contract ended with the U of S).

Yep. That’s 168. Pages. This is a mere drop in the FOIA bucket. In my case, the estimated invoice for production of these documents by the U of S for USRTK is ~$3500 CDN. But this amount doesn’t even begin to reflect the actual costs imposed on university faculty and personnel, including those that work in IT, administration, and the university’s legal department. Now, amplify these kinds of costs across 40+ FOIA respondents and their home institutions. Imagine the time, administration, and opportunity costs that have been amassed all across North America for this FOIA initiative.

The social and economic costs are considerable. This means less time spent on conducting research, training graduate students, teaching, and writing/administering grant applications.
 
While USRTK and others purport to uncover mass collusion in agricultural research, what they are really uncovering is the social, human animal at work. Nothing more. These are scientists – #scientistsarepeople – working in related areas, interacting with one another and exchanging ideas, collaborating on projects, and co-publishing; working to find solutions to social, economic and scientific challenges that cannot be addressed by any one person, organization or institution in isolation.

So, who the FOIA cares?
We should all care. The costs alone are problematic (see above). These email requests amount to taking a subset of raw footage and twisting it into stories that feed into an inflexible, pre-conceived narrative. While freedom of information laws are designed to serve a public good (ensure accountability), they can also be used as tools to intimidate and diminish public good – to subvert democracy.

The silver lining to this cloudy issue may be in the ‘call to action’ for those of us working in the areas of agriculture, science, and innovation. Scientists are the experts. As experts and advocates in private and public sectors, we need to continue to work (collectively) towards solving problems that make sense for societies. But we also need to communicate better about how these relationships are structured and why they matter. Now – more than ever – we need to be transparent about the work that we do and how we do it if we are to earn and maintain public trust. 

 
Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

~ Dara Ó Briain
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Dr. Cami Ryan is Lead, Social Sciences Engagement in Regulatory Policy and Scientific Affairs with Monsanto Canada, a position she started in September, 2014. Read her blog Camistry: A study of Agriculture, Science, Society and other Stuff of Life.
Cami Ryan