I provide outreach in several sensitive topics, including climate change and crop biotechnology. I have witnessed the public misrepresentation of the correspondence and scientific conduct of prominent climate scientists and biotechnologists. Given these circumstances, I am reporting the following facts, so that I report my record on my own completely transparent and accurate terms, rather than reacting to misrepresentation promulgated by agenda-driven activists.
In 2010, I accepted an invitation to present a seminar at Monsanto Headquarters in April, 2010 (I believe the date of the visit was on or about 28 Apr 2010). I accepted the invitation after lengthy deliberation with respected public-sector colleagues and with close friends. Although some may disagree with my decision, ultimately, I accepted the invitation because I was advised by senior colleagues that having a better understanding the world of agricultural industry would allow me to better serve the public in my role as a public scientist. At the time, I agreed with that counsel, and I still do.
I was one of two plant pathologists asked to speak on fungicide resistance. Prior to our visit, my colleague (from another land-grant university) and I consulted with each other extensively in order to deliver an excellent, joint educational presentation. Providing the best possible summary of relevant science is our shared goal in all aspects of our work. We presented our joint seminar and answered questions afterward. All of the questions seemed appropriate to the topic and not unusual nor nefarious in any way. During the one-day visit, we also discussed the disease-control properties of glyphosate (which is well-documented in the public record) and its implications. I also recall a very brief discussion on plant physiology, but the details of that conversation escape me.
What I most remember about the visit was not the content of our discussions but the personal energy and passion of the Monsanto employees. They seem to deeply believe in the value of their work.
Note that, to my best recollection, at no time was there ever any discussion of genetic engineering (GE), GMO technology (except for a statement by Monsanto scientists that Roundup Ready crops could safely be treated with glyphosate), RNAi, or any other genetic engineering-related topic, during the visit. In fact, in 2010, I was several years away from even pondering the possibility of offering outreach on GE crops.
Monsanto paid all travel expenses, which was my requirement. The taxpayers should not have to fund a private visit to any corporate headquarters. Monsanto offered me a $1000 honorarium. I did not want to create any perception of a conflict of interest whatsoever. However, I did not wish to waive the opportunity to bring funds to the University of Kentucky (UK) in support of our general mission of research, education, and outreach. Therefore, I requested of Monsanto that those funds be provided as a grant to UK instead of directly to me (which I can document upon request). It would have been administratively much easier to have accepted the money personally and to have made an equivalent personal donation to UK. In fact, I was even scolded by a mid-level administrator at UK for not doing so, because I had created a significant amount of administration for a small grant. However, I insisted that there be no connection whatsoever between me and those funds. What the funds were actually used for, I really don’t even know or recall. I don’t have any recollection of using those funds myself. Maybe I did, but I certainly don’t recall using them. They may have been used by the college administration for general expenses, which is fine with me. As I said previously, I did not want to be associated with those funds, precisely because I didn’t want any perception whatsoever of corporate influence.
I invite the reader to publicly report on any instances in which you personally declined an honorarium for speaking about a topic of significant public interest. I am particularly interested in stories involving foregone income of four digits.
On the subject of my emails, I do not retain emails on my computer earlier than early 2013. Because of my Extension programming on climate change, I was personally advised by one of the country’s most prominent climate scientists to delete all emails. After confirming that I was entitled to do so with a phone call to our college legal counsel, I did so. Again, this was not to hide anything relating to GMOs or the Monsanto visit—I wasn’t even working with GMOs at that time. I simply was protecting myself from the misuse of emails in ways that would misrepresent my actions and motivations with respect to climate change.
I conduct field evaluations annually of disease-control products (all non-GMO) annually in turfgrass and corn, in recent years receiving $3000-14,000 (typically closer to the low end of the range) for such evaluations. All results of these tests are published in Plant Disease Management Reports. I test both fungicides and other more “out-of-the-box” products, including biocontrol products and organic fertilizers that may influence disease development. The funds obtained provide only part of the cost of conducting these trials. I selectively accept such requests for product evaluation because the data obtained are useful in formulating Extension programming for Kentucky citizens. Furthermore, the funds help us conduct additional science-based pathology work in support of Extension programming for Kentuckians and beyond. Even though the data obtained are valuable for Extension programming, I do believe that manufacturers should pay at least part of the cost of testing their products under Kentucky conditions. I am unaware of *any* public funding programs that would support product testing for plant disease control. I do sometimes test products as “freebies” when I have a strong interest in some unusual material(s) that may hold promise for more sustainable disease control. I decline to test large numbers of experimental compounds that may be years from commercialization, because my motivation is in testing products of importance to formulating sound educational programs, not in generating income for my the program. I don’t recall ever having received any product-testing funds from Monsanto in my 25 years at UK. Maybe I did once, over two decades ago for one or two products to be tested on turfgrass in one season of testing, but I have no clear recollection of any such funding, nor can I find records of that in any of my computer files.
Should there be concern that I am overly focused on commercial synthetic fungicides, I note that my only Ph.D. student did research entirely focused on disease control in organic crops (http://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_diss/225/). I served on the graduate committee of another student working on disease control in organic crops, and I have visited organic farms as well as led student field trips to organic farms. I regularly buy produce and meat from a local organic farm family.
Should the accusation of “unfair access for fungicide manufacturers” be raised, I have always maintained an open-door policy to all groups with an interest in the topics on which I offer Extension programming. I have never failed to return a phone call or email from anyone or any organization. Reach out (with courtesy, of course) and I will reach back!
In my 34 years working in agricultural science, I do not recall a single instance where any company representative requested that I withhold publication of any data or modify my professional judgement on anything in any way. I do recall instances where company representatives and I have disagreed on some issue relating to their products, and we have always been able to discuss our professional differences with respect and dignity.
I wish to also add that I am rather scrupulous about not accepting gifts from commercial interests. I have even sometimes declined honoraria from non-profit, educational institutions and groups, if the topic was in any way sensitive. This is probably “overkill” and unnecessary, but I often do it anyway, to maintain the highest possible standard of freedom from any monetary influence when discussing controversial topics.
If anyone has doubts about my willingness to challenge industry from my position as a public scientist, please see my presentation at http://www.apsnet.org/publications/webcasts/scientificpresentations/Pages/FungicidesandPhysiologicalBenefits.aspx. Also please see the letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/regulating/headline-letter.pdf. Another example: at one time, as I was reading the literature on RNAi (gene silencing), I was concerned about potential health concerns from RNAi technology in crops. Because of this very concern, I arranged for two seminars on the UK campus by Dr. Vicki Vance in March, 2015. I am a tenured, full professor whose salary is 100% paid by the people of the United States. I have no hesitation about taking on major corporations when scientific findings justify it.
I note that I have received no funds or material benefit whatsoever to do research or outreach on GMO crops. Likewise, the University of Kentucky has received no funds for my work on GMO crops. I also add that I have no recollection of ever even talking to a scientist from Monsanto or other agrichemical corporation about GMO crops, with the remarkably modest exception mentioned above. I do recall once, at a scientific conference, politely asking a Monsanto scientist to please not discuss GMOs with me, so I can continue to claim complete and utter freedom from any corporate influence on the topic of GMOs. (Maybe that was overkill—I hope I was gracious, because Monsanto employees are fellow humans, too.) And as of this writing, even with all this freedom from corporate influence, I must say that the wise use of genomic data and genetic tools (including genetic engineering) to address human needs and environmental challenges seems entirely sensible and even desirable.
I note also that I have never received external funding on climate change. (I once served on a $5000 competitively awarded NASA grant, but I neither received nor managed those funds.) And yes, even with all my independence from the influence of external funding, I see clearly in the scientific literature that global warming is real and caused largely by human activity.
Update 29 Oct 2015: See my new blog at http://out-of-the-box-vincelli.blogspot.com/.
University of Kentucky