The USRTK FOIA Campaign Against Academics: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault
40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault
My name is Bruce Chassy and recently my name has shown up on lists of public sector academics under scrutiny by a multibillion-dollar industry-funded activist “freedom of information” campaign ironically seeking to expose industry ties and influence over my four-plus decades of public service as a government and then a state university research scientist and teacher.
So who am I and why is there this cynical interest in my work?
My career started in 1962 after earning my undergraduate degree in Chemistry from San Diego State University. I earned my Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Cornell University and then worked for more than 20 years at the National Institutes of Health researching public health issues. I also taught Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at American University. In 1989, I joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to head the Department of Food Science where I taught courses in nutritional biochemistry, food, food safety, biotechnology and GMOs, food microbiology and basic toxicology. My research at the university continued and included the development of recombinant DNA techniques and HOST-VECTOR systems for the genetic manipulation of food microorganisms, the regulation and biochemical mechanisms and control of gene expression and metabolic regulation. I am an author of dozens of peer-reviewed research articles on the subjects of food safety, biotechnology, toxicology and more. My research has been cited and supports the publication of more than 1,500 other peer reviewed scholarly works.
During my tenure at the University of Illinois, I oversaw the university’s programs in food safety, and represented my expertise at numerous scientific society, commercial and trade association conferences. I mentored hundreds of post-graduate students and researchers, served on dozens of university, government and multi-stakeholder outreach committees, and was a member of the university’s academic ethics program reviewing grants and lectured on academic and scientific ethics. In 2012, I retired from my full-time research and teaching and now enjoy the title of professor emeritus at the university.
While retired, because of my ongoing interest in the importance of credible, sound science driving public policy and regulation of food safety related issues, I joined with other academic colleagues and helped to found a 501c3 non-profit organization we call Academics Review. We review published claims associated with our technical areas of research and point out false or misleading representations of science to help ensure public and commercial policies are guided by facts based on rigorous scientific exploration.
Which brings us to today and the interest in my career by a group called U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) led by professional activist and political operative Gary Ruskin. Using Illinois state public records laws, Mr. Ruskin has demanded access to multiple years’ worth of email correspondence between me and a long list of biotechnology industry related groups. In particular, Mr. Ruskin and his funders are seeking to out those nefarious backroom dealings they allege have occurred between public researchers like myself and Monsanto.
What will he find? My former employer has turned over about 100 emails to, from or copying me with companies like Monsanto and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Of these emails, many are replies by me and others to an original email and thus the sum total of original correspondence is fewer than ten (10) exchanges on about a half dozen topics. As Mr. Ruskin and his allies who claim public research has somehow been corrupted by such exchanges will certainly try to make hay over these exchanges, I provide the facts about them here:
- Correspondence with George Harrigan. Dr. Harrigan holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biochemistry and is a former researcher and professor at the University of Hawaii. He is a study director and senior scientist with Monsanto. Dr. Harrigan is a respected expert in his field and an extensively published scientist with nearly 100 authored articles in multiple peer reviewed publications. We collaborated on a chapter for an academic publication called “Metabolomics” published in 2012 with more than 30 other scientists. Our chapter “Challenges for Metabolomics as a Tool in Safety Assessments” included full disclosure of both my and Dr. Harrigan’s affiliations. As part of his co-authorship, Monsanto provided minimal financial support to the University of Illinois to cover the publisher’s fees (sometimes called “page fees” and “article processing charges”) for the publication and republication fees for using our work in academic text books. These expenses were handled by the university following the rules established to ensure full ethical compliance with academic publishing and none were paid to me. My salary, time and expenses for this work, which were part of my position and university expectations that I publish in my field of expertise, were 100 percent covered by the university. As to publishing and collaborating on research with scientists working for industry, university academics need access to and the public benefits from such expert collaborations.
- Correspondence with multiple scientists from Monsanto, BIO and other universities. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposed review to the ways agricultural biotechnology is evaluated and regulated in the United States. Government agencies publish such reviews to provoke expert input and comments to help guide the formation of well-informed public policies, rule changes and regulations. This correspondence shows my collaboration in the form of phone calls with members of the National Academy of Sciences and other academic and industry experts to provide input to the EPA and their congressional oversight committees expressing our shared interests and concerns that sound science be the foundation of proper government rule making and appropriate regulatory oversight. Universities, foundations and other public institutions also research and develop plants using modern biotechnology, including work in those areas of low commercial interest but which are critically needed in some of the poorest and neediest places in the world. Regulations and policies not founded in sound science are of common interest to us and companies like Monsanto. As such, this correspondence included multiple exchanges reflecting the counter-lobbying being done by anti-GMO activists and organic industry lobbying groups to encourage non-science-based restrictions on the research, development and commercialization of plant biotechnology. This included emails alerting myself and other scientists to various media publications by these activists and lobbyists with suggestions that we, based on our expertise, consider responding. At no time in these collaborations was there ANY financial remuneration for my participation from any industry source. At no time in these collaborations was I, nor to my knowledge were any of the other independent expert views, compromised by the input and participation of industry experts. At no time did any industry representative ask us to say or do anything that was not our expert opinion or part of our expected job as independent, public sector academics.
- Requests and correspondence to participate in international conferences and industry issues briefings. Academic experts are frequently solicited to attend conferences and meet with companies to provide their input on research and science-related product development. On three occasions, Monsanto requested my participation at such events. Twice, I was requested by Monsanto to consider presenting at conferences in India and China based on my publications in the area of food safety and biotechnology. On one other occasion, I was invited along with several other independent academics, to see a presentation by Monsanto on new RNAi technology it was researching. My correspondence with Monsanto regarding these requests shows I shared my presentation materials and that Monsanto provided travel reimbursements for my attendance at these events. Further, this correspondence shows I declined any offers of honoraria for my time for doing so. In addition, my attendance at their research presentation included a standard non-disclosure agreement required to allow them to share information about their research and development plans. Such non-disclosures are common and required to allow outside independent experts to review and share their views about new technologies developments in various stages of commercial development. The email records show that we insisted the non-disclosure agreement explicitly stipulate that we would receive no compensation.
- American Medical Association (AMA) Illinois and Indiana chapters’ proposed resolution on GMO labeling. In 2012, a resolution was put forward by John Fagan, an anti-GMO activist and founder of Genetic-ID, to have the AMA endorse mandatory labeling of GMOs based on unsupported safety allegations. Genetic-ID is a company that tests for the presence of GMOs in food products and financially benefits from labeling requirements. Correspondence will show that I was alerted to this proposal by Monsanto, which noted the company was responding and suggesting input from other experts on this topic would be useful to the AMA. As I am not a physician, I noted my input was not appropriate but offered to recommend the names of other more appropriate experts.
- Announcement by Monsanto for support of the University of Illinois Ag Communications Program. In May 2012, Monsanto and the University of Illinois announced a $250,000 grant to be put towards an initiative between the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and the College of Media to help establish an Agricultural Communications Program endowed chair that would strengthen communications for agricultural and rural development. I was copied in on emails about that announcement one month prior to my retirement from the university. Neither myself nor the programs or research on which I worked were the recipient of or benefited in any manner from any money associated with that university support from Monsanto.
- Other correspondence regarding published media articles on GMO safety. There are a small number (fewer than five) of other email exchanges between me, other academics and staff at BIO or Monsanto about news articles where safety or other disparaging claims were being made about the science-based facts regarding foods derived from or associated with biotechnology crops. These exchanges solicited expert scientific advice among the participants (to and from both the academic and industry scientists) and discussions of appropriate and responsible ways to respond. At no time was I requested to modify my independent expert views and I was never compensated in any way for my expertise.
As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected and a requirement of my position at the University of Illinois that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise. University and private sector collaborations are critically essential to ensure the public benefits from the best and most complete understanding of research and emerging commercial developments of any technology. Financial support from the private sector for public sector research, education and public outreach is also appropriate, commonplace and needed to further the public interest. Such support should be, and in all my experiences has been, transparent and done under the strict ethical guidelines of the public institutions that are benefiting from private sector or individual financial contributions. In fact, the university must approve all external relationships and regularly reviews them for adherence to ethical standards and absence of conflict of interest.
Mr. Ruskin at USRTK and his financial backers do not adhere to the same ethical standards or disclosures. I’m certain he and his funders in the organic food industry, who profit from attacking the safety of GMOs, will seek to characterize my correspondence with private-sector scientists as “close ties” to Monsanto and the biotechnology industry. A similar inspection of Mr. Ruskin’s emails, financial ties and those who are using these campaigns, like his funders at the Organic Consumers Association and organic industry “academic” consultants like Charles Benbrook, to further the financial interests of their undisclosed financial backers should be the focus of media reports, government oversight and public outrage.
I am proud to stand up my professional relationships to such scrutiny as serving the best interests of my academic science and role as a public-sector educator. The same cannot be said of those seeking to use important freedom of information laws to disparage academics and other public-sector scientists and abuse the freedom of information process to drive them away from ongoing important collaborations in the furtherance of sound, science-driven public and commercial policy development.
 Gary Ruskin’s original FOIA request demanded my emails between 2012 and present and was later amended to also include emails from 2011-2012, and included demands to the Illinois Attorney General threatening litigation to force the University of Illinois to comply.
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