A familiar pattern is emerging, and if you love science and respect scientists it should give you chills. This week we were again treated to industry-sponsored character assassination of a prominent academic, a distinguished professor with a lifetime of service and accomplishment. He has published and taught in the public domain for decades, winning awards for his work and recognition for his scholarship.
So what did he do wrong? Talk about climate change? Endorse vaccination?
No. He correctly articulates the risks and benefits of biotechnology, more precisely, genetic engineering (familiarly, ‘GMOs’). These days that will bring you fire.
Professor Peter Phillips holds the title of Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. His publication record is an eclectic mix of topics in economics, regulation, innovation, and philosophy around science and technology. He’s authored eight books and launched the careers of leaders in academia and industry.
He’s also a nice guy that would just as much buy you a beer and talk shop as discuss science policy with you in a classroom.
It is this phenomenal record of leadership and service that put him firmly in the cross hairs of the activist organization US-Right to Know (US-RTK). US-RTK is an activist organization in Oakland, CA that is leads abusive attacks against academic leaders they want removed from the public discussion of biotechnology and food. They have targeted Phillips along with dozens of other trusted academics.
Their mission is to erode trust in public scientists. Their method is simple; a merchants-of-doubt strategy that compels reporters to do their dirty work, seeking to smear academics with their own words.
The process is this:
1. US-RTK raises money from companies and NGOs that want to end the use of genetically-engineered crops, and harm corporations that sell seed and crop protection products.
2. US-RTK exploits public records laws to obtain emails from public scientists at massive ($$ millions $$ now) taxpayer expense.
3. US-RTK then highlights specific phrases, cherry-picks specific quotations with the intent of developing a story that maligns the targeted faculty member.
4. They then develop a narrative that suggests industry collusion or undue influence, especially with any attempt to connect the faculty member to Monsanto, a company that is the bogeyman favorite of activists.
5. They then provide emails and a damaging story to a reporter.
6. Some journalists run with the story, and publish and article, even though there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. Some do not even check with the targeted faculty member — others do but do not report the actual story. Others realize that this is an industry hit-piece on an academic and do not proceed.
7. Secondary media picks up on the original story and republishes, especially a rabid activist media that wishes to defame scientific leaders that garner public trust.
8. US-RTK ‘s own paid reporter, Carey Gillam, reports on the targeted faculty member, shares stories of “corruption” in social media.
9. US-RTK takes a victory lap, celebrating the articles that appear to be independent investigations into an academic scientist, but really are just the slanderous fruits of dirty seeds they planted at taxpayer expense.
We’ve seen it over and over again now. The goal — leave these trusted professors, dietitians and physicians “Google Dead”, a state where their online reputation will always drag the anchor of activist derision. The smear piece will find its way to additional websites and comment-section links, painting a recognized independent scholar as a greasy tool of the agrochemical industry, where no such thing is true.
In the case of Phillips, US-RTK acquired emails and used Jason Warick from CBC News as a complicit pipeline to media. This way it is not simply Gary Ruskin and his band of industry-financed lackeys slandering scientists on activist websites. Instead it takes the patina of legitimate research, hard-core gumshoe reporting. It really is a reporter doing the bidding of US-RTK, who is doing the bidding of a handful of organizations, companies, and undisclosed donors paying for the hit.
Warick’s first paragraph refers to Phillips as a “sock puppet” and Gary Ruskin of US-RTK as a “researcher”. Even a cursory analysis of the facts of the case shows that these monikers are precisely reversed.
Ruskin received 700 pages of Phillips’ email from University of Saskatchewan. What did they find? Warick lays out the most egregious “offenses” out one-by-one. I urge you to look at them here. I was going to write about each of them, but it is a waste of space.
Bottom line — Phillips does what academics should do, participate in opportunities to write, speak and interact with the public in areas of their expertise. Whether it is Monsanto, Pepsico, or Annie’s Organics requesting a talk, training or written piece is immaterial. Academics are happy to share their ideas with diverse audiences, including those that may not agree with them. In the USA it is part of the Land Grant mission, to serve the public and industry. You don’t get to pick who is holy enough for your attention.
And when you read what was uncovered in his emails ask this question. Did Phillips do anything wrong?
The answer is absolutely not.
Did he receive any compensation?
Did he do anything unethical?
So why does Warick imply that he does? Why is it necessary to be “Under Fire” as the article’s headline states?
The article weaves in quotes from Steven Lewis, a Saskatoon healthcare consultant. He takes the liberty of stating, “It stinks that he (Phillips) is co-creating propaganda with Monsanto.”
I want to know what is “propaganda”. To my eye, Phillips talks about science and its social interface. That’s like saying oceanologists that report sea level rise are co-creating propaganda with Al Gore.
Lewis also makes a comment about, “…his (Phillips’) tight relationship with Monsanto and his eagerness to do their bidding.” This line is disgusting. Tight relationship? A few emails in an decades-long academic career?
Do their bidding? How does it feel to do Gary Ruskin’s bidding Mr. Lewis?
Basically Lewis provides the words that the Warick wants to build the story he, and Ruskin, want told. Here a respected professor does exactly what respected professor do — write and interact with the public and industry. Only here it is portrayed as something illicit when there is no evidence to support that conclusion.
The university looked at this case carefully and saw no evidence of any wrongdoing, and no violation of anything relevant to the university’s ethics policy.
So basically, nothing. Zero, zilch, nothing. A distinguished professor doing his work, and if in a few decades, a dozen books, hundreds of conference abstracts and peer-reviewed publications — a couple of emails with an ag company isn’t exactly grand collusion.
So shame on CBC and Warick. Time will reveal exactly what this is. Phillips is a good man and a great scholar, he just teaches a science that offends the bottom line of US-RTK’s sponsors. For this he is punished with a sad character assassination that now will be part of his permanent internet record.
In conclusion, US-RTK again exploits a gullible media to propagate the wishes of US-RTK’s corporate sponsors. The irony is so thick. Here wealthy corporations use US-RTK and CBC to attack a public university professor that is simply doing his job. Did he do anything wrong? No. Will he have to have an asterisk next to his name going forward? Yes. That’s the goal of US-RTK and their sponsors — to erode the trust in public scientists, leaving less resistance the sponsors’ creeping corrupt ideology, and the profits that can be made along with it.