Seed World

Threats Prompt Reallocation of Biotech Education Funds

The University of Florida re-allocates a donation intended to improve the public’s understanding of science after public threats to a researcher.
Monsanto Company donated $25,000 to support the Talking Biotech program, a science communication effort that provided on-campus workshops to train scientists about how to engage the public on agricultural biotechnology. The university will reallocate the funds to the campus food pantry.
The program is run by Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Horticultural Sciences Department, and a recognized leader in bringing science to the public. Since Monsanto’s donation to the program became widely visible in a recent Nature article, Folta has experienced baseless, damaging allegations and received comments that could be construed as threats.
“I’m teaching a science that opponents of ag biotech (GMO) do not want taught,” Folta says. “Everything I teach comes from a scientific consensus and support of the literature, and sometimes it does not mesh with the beliefs promoted by TV doctors, activists advocating a single perspective, and those who profit from manufacturing food fear.”
Folta has no relationship with Monsanto in research or teaching. The funds allowed UF to administer the costs associated with the outreach program accrued when Folta volunteers his time to promote science communication across the nation.
The decision to reallocate the funds came when his home address and other personal information appeared among comments on Facebook. Obscene, inflammatory posts also appeared on Craigslist, presumably with the intent to incite local violent action.
“This never was a discussion of my research or the science I speak about,” Folta says. “This has now turned into a threatening situation for my students and family, and I cannot risk harm to my lab or home.
“This has taught me that this is not about what is true, it is how it is perceived, and to many a donation automatically means the company has some influence on my work when there was not,” Folta says. “The discussion has gone to an extreme level that is frightening.
“I had an established, effective program that a company wanted to support,” Folta says. “Science can benefit from corporate partnerships to foster efforts of scientific literacy, and that helps all of us.”
Folta does not know the future of the program as some of the donation has already been spent on outreach. He says he’ll fill in those costs personally, and IFAS has also offered to assist covering costs. “We’ll return the funds and make this happen another way.”