Seed World

Speak Up For Science


The attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds, whereas recent research shows that humans lose their capabilities to focus in eight seconds. For those of you whose attention span is a little longer that eight seconds you will have noted that we are in a time where science is more and more under threat, and I sometimes wonder whether science is dead? I come from a time where peer-reviewed science was considered ‘holy’, untouchable and until thoroughly disputed, the data generated by peer-reviewed science were considered the absolute truth. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Unfortunately, time has changed. Data from peer-reviewed science no longer provide the key decision parameters for our leaders who determine a country’s policy.

Science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning “knowledge”, and it is a systematic undertaking that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. Due to their academic background providing training for the future scientists in the dos and don’ts of how to conduct scientific experiments, they start their career with a new talent in their backpacks, called ‘scientific integrity’. This refers to honest and transparent methods and reporting of research. In other words, there is no cooking the books or even subtle influences of bias to privilege some lines of investigation or results over others. There can be no falsification or fabrication or plagiarism.

The great thing about modern day science and their publications is that it has a built-in quality check, which is called ‘peer-review’. It provides assurance that several people who know what they’re doing have double-checked the quality of the data and the outcome. It typically works something like this: A group of scientists completes a study and writes it up in the form of an article which they submit to a journal for publication. Then the journal’s editors send the article to several other scientists who work in the same field (i.e., the “peers” of peer review). Those reviewers provide feedback on the article and tell the editor whether or not they think the study is of high enough quality to be published. Upon receipt of the comments, the authors may then revise their article and resubmit it for consideration. Only articles that meet good scientific standards (e.g., acknowledge and build upon other work in the field, rely on logical reasoning and well-designed studies, back up claims with evidence, etc.) are accepted for publication. Most of the time this goes well and provides high quality data that can stand the test of time. And occasionally there are scientists who do not take scientific rigour as seriously as they should (think of Pusztai or Serralini) and the outcome is a flawed study. Typically, these flawed studies are quickly identified, thoroughly checked by other scientists and the flaws presented to the public. This is how science continually checks and validates. Post peer-review, scientists seek to replicate and verify findings, and through that they are strengthening the scientific endeavour.

But there is another side to this coin. Scientists who find their results and hence themselves in line with industry results and especially those who have cooperated with industry, have come under sometimes heavy criticism. Scientists coming to the conclusion that glyphosate, GMO’s or neonics are safe, are quickly and wrongfully branded as industry shills and have been facing obstruction, mostly by opponents of such technologies. What has happened to scientists and professors like Kevin Folta, Shelley McGuire or David Zaruk is harrowing, and includes doxing, publication of graduate students’ names for harassment and even threats to their families. This is entirely unacceptable and has to stop. At times the obstruction comes from their own academic institutions and the number of scientists that have seen their careers side-tracked or even prematurely ended because of this, is countless.

In my view it is time that the main media picks up on this and starts challenging university policies. At the same time, I would also like to advise scientists to join forces and try to investigate how this is happening in different universities, where those who have found results in line with industry results or who have worked with industry, found themselves ostracised, demoted or moved. Based on the results of such a survey, one could foresee an open letter against the politicisation in the academic world. Such a letter should be easily arrangeable on the internet hopefully signed by as many scientists as possible. This letter should provide a strong signal to university decision makers. As it is happening at an alarming rate, I believe it is time to start a type of Me-Too movement of academic harassment.

There is another downside to the seed industry as well. I would like seed companies to step forward who have experienced harder times working with academics because these academics are seeing an increase in credibility risk.

Yes, it is important to Speak up for Seeds, but if we don’t Speak up for Science as well, we will have very little seed sector left to be proud of in the near future.