How to Kill a Scientist

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Arguably, it is more difficult to be a scientist today than ever before. Faculty positions are few and far between. A mere 20% of federal grant proposals are actually funded, and the biomedical professors lucky enough to score an R01, the granddaddy of NIH grants, are usually not awarded their first until the ripe old age of 42. In short, there are too many PhD’s and not enough jobs and money to support them.

As if that weren’t bad enough, now scientists must also avoid being killed — metaphorically speaking. The power of the Internet has fanned the flames of ideology, allowing activists to unite in an unprecedented assault upon our nation’s scientists in the form of harassment, intimidation, and character assassination.

The strategy involves the Freedom of Information Act, a law meant to facilitate government transparency, which can easily be abused by troublemakers intent on digging through a scientist’s emails in the hope of finding an embarrassing comment or a statement that can be taken out of context. The tactic was famously deployed by climate change skeptics in an attempt to discredit Michael Mann, and it has been perfected by anti-GMO activists bent on destroying an entire generation of biotechnology scientists. According to an editorial in the latest issue of Nature Biotechnology, 40 scientists have been targeted by “the activist organization US Right to Know (USRTK), bankrolled largely by a $47,500 donation from the Organic Consumers Association.” (The Genetic Literacy Project claims the figure is at least $114,500.)

Kevin Folta, a plant scientist at the University of Florida, has become Public Enemy #1 for the crazed and implacable anti-GMO movement. An outspoken defender of GMOs, he has become the face of the biotech resistance. For his bravery, he has paid a dear price: His reputation has been dragged through the mud, despite the fact that he has never done anything unethical, let alone illegal. The aforementioned editorial summarized the situation eloquently:

The tragedy is the harassment that [Folta] and his family have experienced in recent weeks will cause many potential researcher/communicators to duck back under the parapet.

This is how demagogues and anti-science zealots succeed: they extract a high cost for free speech; they coerce the informed into silence; they create hostile environments that threaten vibrant rare species with extinction.

So, what can be done about it? The editorial suggests more funding for science communication and that the major journal publishers engage in more public outreach. These are a good start, but they do not go far enough. The solution will require at least three major changes.

First, FOIA must be amended. Unless there is evidence to suggest that a scientist has engaged in wrongdoing, there is no reason to allow a group of activists to blatantly violate his or her privacy by plowing through archives of email. (Alison Van Eenennaam, one of the targeted scientists, wrote on Science 2.0 that “there is something deeply intrusive about a third party requesting years’ worth of email correspondence.”)

Second, politicians from both sides of the aisle should publicly defend the integrity of the scientific community. Nothing can change the tone of public dialogue — and bring much-needed attention to a pressing issue — like a well-placed comment from the President of the United States.

Third, media outlets like Mother Jones, which lead with ideology rather than reason, ought to be publicly shamed by science journalists and the scientific community for giving a prominent voice to pseudoscientific malcontents and their anti-corporate conspiracy theories.

As a society, we must choose to protect our scientists from harassment. They deserve a peaceful atmosphere in which they can safely do their important work. If we do not, we risk not only further damaging an already fragile and demoralized scientific community but also America’s standing as the world’s leading innovator.

Source: “Standing up for science.” Nat Biotech 33: 1009. Published online: 08-Oct-2015. doi: 10.1038/nbt.3384