Thursday, September 24, 2015

“What can [we] do against such reckless hate?”

I’d like to address a common issue that I see on social media with regard to scientists. Scientists are often portrayed as being easily corruptible and swayed with monetary enticements by those who stand to gain from silencing them. This is a very common claim against scientists working for pharmaceutical or agricultural biotechnology companies. This attitude and hatred truly makes me sad as scientists are people too. We often care deeply for the topics we research, not only out of a scientific curiosity, but also out of a genuine concern for our fellow humans and a desire to make the world a better place. This has been on my mind a lot recently as the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa has continued and public scientists are being smeared in social media. In Africa, many researchers and healthcare workers have died as a result of infection with Ebola. With the recent anniversary of the 2014 death of one of the world experts in hemorrhagic fevers, I thought it prudent to remind everyone of his sacrifice, as well as others, in an attempt to dispel the notion that scientists are in it for the money.
Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan was a world expert in Lassa fever (caused by the Lassa virus) and led Sierra Leone’s effort against Lassa fever. When Ebola was found there, he was asked by his country’s government to lead the effort against it. He eventually contracted the virus and passed away. His work, along with the efforts of several co-authors, on the genetic diversity of the Ebola virus was eventually published in Science and shed light on the epidemiology of the virus. These scientists and healthcare workers gave their lives to try and stop a devastating disease. To properly frame why they would do this, it helps to understand their motivations. When Dr. Khan was 15, a German scientist contracted Lassa fever and died during an outbreak. This had a profound effect on the young man and led to pursuit of virus research as a career. Dr. Kahn went on to become one of the leading virologists in Africa and was selected to lead the Kenema Government Hospital’s Lassa Fever Program. When an unprecedented Ebola virus outbreak occurred in several West African nations, including his home country, Sierra Leone, he was asked to lead the government’s efforts against the virus. In July 2014, he contracted ebola and passed away on July 29th, 2014. After his death, he was declared a national hero and a new viral hemorrhagic fever center will be named in his honor once it is completed. Although Dr. Khan was not the only researcher to pass away from ebola, he is certainly the most prominent. The obituaries for Dr. Khan and his co-authors can be found on this site and this site. Dr. Khan and others fought ebola despite the dangers because they had a genuine love for their fellow humans and sought to make the world a better place. I doubt anyone would go into a situation where they could catch a deadly virus with no known cure if they were only interested in money.

Five researchers and nurses who co-authored a paper on the genetics of the Ebola virus and passed away from contracting it prior to publication. From left to right: Mohamed Fullah, Alice Kovoma, Sheik Humarr Khan, Alex Moigboi, and Mbalu Fonnie. Photo credits: Mambu Momoh; Simirie Jalloh; Pardis Sabeti (2); Mike Dubose.
This sacrifice by scientists and healthcare workers fighting ebola is not a unique story. During World War II, a group of Soviet plant scientists slowly starved to death during a siege rather than eat the seeds they were guarding. This seed collection had been collected by the eminent botanist and scientist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov over decades of work. As the German army approached Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), valuable art and treasures were evacuated, but the seed collection was forgotten. At that time in the USSR, the science of genetics was outlawed and many scientists were executed for daring to practice genetics. Vavilov himself was spared execution but thrown in the Gulag where he died in 1943. These scientists were regarded as pariahs due to their devotion to science. Yet when the Germans approached, they took all the seeds and tubers down into the vaults and guarded them with their lives. As the siege approached 900 days, one by one they succumbed to starvation when they might have survived by eating a few of the seeds. I don’t know if the thought to eat the seeds crossed their mind or not, but they clearly did not act on it as nine of the scientists perished rather than betray what they saw as their duty. These seeds eventually served as the basis of Soviet agriculture. In 1979, it was estimated that 80% of the cultivars grown in the USSR were derived from Vavilov’s collection. Even today this trend of seed scientists closely guarding collections continues with Syrian plant scientists risking their lives to save a seed collection that is irreplaceable. So far 80% of the seedbank has been duplicated at other locations despite constant fighting and threats of kidnapping. Would scientists slowly starve to death or risk capture and torture if they were just out to make money?

However, some people still believe that scientists only support positions that they are paid for. An excellent example of this is what is happening today; we have a perfect example of history repeating itself. To return to the Russian botanist story, in the 1930s a biologist named Trofim Denisovich Lysenko gained prominence as his pseudoscience beliefs matched Soviet ideology at the time. He believed that Mendel and other geneticists were liars and that the field of genetics was wrong; plants, he claimed, obtained traits from response to environmental conditions and not through Mendelian genetics. Those who opposed his hypothesis were jailed and many were executed. It wasn’t until after Stalin’s death that other scientists started speaking out against him. He was finally removed from power and died in disgrace. However, 25 years that could have been spent on scientific advancement was lost. The former soviet nations would be very different today if Vavilov and not Lysenko was favored by Stalin.

Today we have a similar situation developing; some opponents of genetic engineering have been fighting against the technology since the first GE crop went on the market. Much like Lysenkoism, they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the science of genetics. In their minds, adding a gene or two into a plant irreparably alters it from something wholesome into something deadly. Although this view has no basis in reality, and is not supported by evidence, anyone who dares point out this error is called shill for big agriculture. To try to prove they are correct, they have gone on a fishing expedition, led by US Right To Know, using the Freedom of Information Act (and similar transparency laws) as a weapon to find anything they can use to discredit their opponents. Who are these terrible people that deserve to be reviled for their heinous crimes against humanity? They are scientists and educators like Dr. Kevin Folta. After obtaining thousands of his emails, these activists have been vindicated. All it took for Monsanto to “buy” Dr. Folta were some sandwiches, so they must have been amazing sandwiches. In all seriousness, all the FOIA turned up was a $25,000 grant from Monsanto to the outreach program that Dr. Folta runs and some reimbursement for travel (along with a sandwich or two). In the research world, $25,000 is a small amount and it goes fast, especially after the indirect costs are taken out to pay for the overhead and infrastructure at the university. The money will stretch a bit more in the outreach program covering by covering expenses such as food, travel and renting out a venue. But the bottom line is that getting a small grant like this is not out of the ordinary and this is not nearly the victory that it is being touted as.
Is this the sandwich that enticed a scientist to abandon all morals and ethics? Alas we shall never know as the evidence has been consumed. Credit: Steve Buchanan. 
Recently, this story has taken a turn for the worse. A blog published by PLoS has misrepresented one of the emails turned over by Dr. Folta. They claimed that Dr. Folta had been spoon feeding Monsanto the perfect advice to defeat the California labeling bill. This was something they long suspected and now they had caught him red-handed. This misrepresentation was then magnified by Inside Higher Ed as quotes from Dr. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, someone who is not known to be civil in their discourse with others, were included in the piece. So what was the email about? It turns out that the email was forwarded to Dr. Folta by a Monsanto employee from a group that was opposed to the labeling law in Colorado. He had been asked to speak at an event and help educate a group of growers and the Monsanto employee was giving him background information about the meeting. This is not what the authors of the PLoS blog post claimed, nor is it what anti-GE opponents are celebrating as a victory. Eventually PLoS retracted the blog but the damage was done as the same piece was printed in the LA Times. From there the fiasco snowballed into Vani Hari suing Dr. Folta for any emails where he mentions her name or any derivative of if. Not the be outdone, the FOIA requests have expanded to 40 scientists including one whose only crime was to do science and accurately report the results. To make matters worse, the University of Florida has taken the $25,000 from Monsanto and transferred it to the UF food bank to try and stem the onslaught of some of the more vile attacks on Dr. Folta. That has not stopped the attacks even though all that is left is some travel reimbursement and a sandwich or two. Despite an effort to be more transparent than anyone ever before, Dr. Folta is still reviled by those suffering from confirmation bias (one has only to venture into the comments sections of articles related to Dr. Folta to see this in action). The truth is being dealt with in a loose and underhanded manner. To paraphrase Philip Snowden, “In war the first casualty is the truth.” Make no mistake, anti-science activists have declared war on science and those who cherish it.

Despite the constant attacks against scientists, more are eagerly seeking to join the profession. Why would someone willingly go into an area with a deadly virus and try and help those infected? Is there money enough to purchase loyalty that can override the instinct of self-preservation? Can money buy a sense of duty strong enough that people will slowly starve to death rather than betray their charge? How much money would it take to strengthen someone against being reviled and despised by complete strangers? A common logic tool is Occam’s Razor; the simplest explanation is the most likely. Is it more likely that $25,000 and a sandwich is enough to win over a highly trained, critical thinker or that they have a true desire to teach others science based on the latest research? Scientists are people with families that they love and care for. Why would they risk their loved one for a few bucks? Have we really become so cynical as a society that we just assume the worst of people? I’m not saying that some scientists aren’t just out to get rich, but it’s not nearly as common as suggested by some. So what can we do against such reckless hate? We meet it head on.

Title quote: King Théoden, The Lord of the Rings- The Two Towers, New Line Cinema


  1. I really enjoyed your article and it has important information. HOWEVER I had real trouble reading it - please remember that for people with compromised vision white letters on a black background is VERY difficult to read! Check on the ADA (Americans with Disabilities) page for guidelines re online color/font/background issues. With respect, Leni

  2. I think it was actually a Subway sandwich, not a Dagwood.

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