Sunday, August 9, 2015

The funding of science: public & private sector collaborations

Hi all,

There's been a storm in the science communication world over this article. In case you've missed it, several public sector scientists who are outspoken proponents of biotech crops have been targeted by anti-GMO activists, and have had their emails seized and read under freedom of information laws. The argument is that as public sector scientists, the public should be able to read their emails and know if they have been cooperating with private sector businesses (i.e. Monsanto). One of these scientists is Dr Kevin Folta.

Dr Folta has superstar status in the GMO world. I've emailed him a handful of times and each time, I've been painfully nervous. Saying that he has been a target of anti-GMO activist activity is putting it lightly. He has constantly disavowed receiving any sort of funding from Big Ag. The article I posted at the beginning outlines that the emails uncovered that he received 25K from Monsanto, which Dr Folta says was used for outreach activities, and that he had travel expenses covered when doing public communication. This has raised a veritable poopoo-storm in anti-GMO groups, who are claiming that Dr Folta personally received 25K from Monsanto.

As you may know, I'm currently doing R&D in assay development for a private company completely unaffiliated with Ag. I do hands-on work and I've been back at the bench for almost 2 years now. But before that, I used to work more closely with customers, representing their voice and concerns during product development. So I want to provide a brief explanation on why and how a private sector scientist such as myself needs to collaborate with public sector scientists, and vice versa. I think that this relationship is extremely difficult to understand unless you're in this area of work, so I hope to provide a little bit of insight. I also hope that other scientists in the private and public sector speak up about this to educate the public, and if you need a platform, I'm making my blog available for it.

As a company goes about developing a product, at some point it needs to start generating data outside of the company. There are several reasons for this: a) the company wants to put the product through its paces to make sure that it works well in different settings and environments, b) it wants to generate marketing material to sell the product. No matter how much data you generate within the company, it doesn't carry nearly as much weight as data generated by someone from outside the company. Sometimes it also has to do with samples/materials: if you're developing an assay for a disease, where are you going to get the patient samples to make sure your product works? A public sector scientist would be interested in such a collaboration because if the product DOES indeed work, then the scientist could get a very good publication out of it. How the product is provided, the timeline, the reagents, funding (if any), how the data will be shared, etc. are all decided and agreed upon in advance between the groups, and much of it depends on the type of collaboration (whether it's a trial, a beta test, or a pre-commercial agreement).

If such a collaboration does lead to a publication, it is common that someone from product development will be listed as an author on the paper. If not, the company's role in the collaboration is outlined in the funding sources. In my experience, I have not seen a scientist get personally paid for such a collaboration, but that is not to say that it would not happen.

There are other types of collaborations: sometimes a public lab will contact a product developer to find out if a certain application of a technology is possible. If the company thinks that it might be, a collaboration might be set up following the same principles outlined above.

In my experience, the times in which a public scientist actually gets paid by a private company is when they are engaged as an expert or as a consultant. I worked on a project designing an assay where we hired a few people from the public sector, who were experts in that particular field, to help with the assay design and provide us with guidance.

Could the public sector scientists have conducted the research and done the work on their own? Possibly. But it costs a lot of money which the public lab may not have, a lot of internal knowledge about how the product works which the lab may not have, and other resources which may not be accessible to them.

Another very common practice in the industry is conferences and seminars organized by a company to allow clinicians and scientists to share their research into products or applications of a product. Of course, companies will try to select speakers that are pleased with the performance of the product, but in no way do they control what is said. I actually helped organize one such seminar while my sales-rep was on maternity leave. Of the speakers invited to attend, I gave them the option of sending me their slides so that they were pre-loaded or bringing their own laptop. Most chose to bring their own laptop, so I didn't even see the slides that the speakers were going to use until the day of.

In no shape or form did the speakers get coached. In fact, one of the speakers mentioned that he preferred a product from another vendor for one of the applications he spoke about. All the speakers were offered reimbursement for their travel expenses getting to and from the seminar.

Why would a scientist accept to speak in such a forum? First, the scientist gets to share his or her research with a very broad audience. Second, many individuals in that audience are working with the exact same products, so they can discuss and offer recommendations to one another. Why would a company sponsor such an event? It allows scientists to better understand a technology or assay which they may not be familiar with. Hopefully, the scientists will come up with ideas on how they could use that assay in their research, or will walk away impressed enough with the applications that they'll consider using it. It's a risk. If scientists aren't pleased with the product, make no mistake about it: they will tell everyone.

In addition, private industry sponsors many other "marketing" type activities. For example, a company might sponsor a coffee break at a conference, sponsor the printing of conference material, sponsor an evening mixer at a conference, etc.

Do I think that these activities cross some sort of line and are "bribes" of some sort or that they could buy a scientist's opinion on a topic? Absolutely not. If you think that's the case, then you do not know how expensive it is to run a lab. Check out to get an idea of how much common reagents, plasticware, and equipment costs.

At the same time, I am fully aware that I design assays for evidence-based people with little brand loyalty: if I build something that sucks, no one will use it. Unlike a sports team (who can lose for years, but still have a sell-out crowd), a consumer electronics brand (who can make a product that isn't as good as a competitor's), or a clothing brand (who can make a delicate piece of clothing that you have to dry clean if  you want to wear if more than one time), if it doesn't work, if it doesn't do its job, then customers will go elsewhere.

That's my personal experience as a private sector scientist working with the public sector. My guess that much of it applies to many other companies and segments of the biotech world.

Dr Folta has clarified that he received money from Monsanto for his public outreach efforts and that this has been spent organizing talks, coffee, and getting to and from the places he speaks. His critics have said that this just highlights that he's been lying for all these years after constantly disavowing that he doesn't receive money from "Big Ag". In case it needs to be said, there's a difference between funding someone's research and funding someone's outreach activities. Think about it this way: if Monsanto had organized the session, bought the coffee, and Dr Folta had simply showed up, given a talk, and then walked away, would you think that he was "bought"? So what's the difference? Or better yet, if Dr Folta held a seminar for students to teach them how to use Excel, and Microsoft sponsored the event, would you have a problem with it? My guess is "no".

Public research scientists struggle to get their funding. One of the main reasons (if not THE main reason) I didn't go into the public sector was because in grad school it seemed that most of my prof's time was spent securing grants. That didn't seem like the life I wanted to lead: I wanted to DO the science, not just sit down and write about it. If we want our public scientists to be completely detached from the private sector in their funding, in their outreach activities, in their conferences, in their seminars, in college campuses (including infrastructure such as arenas and stadiums), then we need to provide them with more public funds. And how do we do that? We increase taxes. There's pretty much no way around it.

Whether or not we increase taxes and better fund our public scientists, there's one thing that bears repeating: science is science. Regardless of who you are, where you work or who funds you, if your data sucks then your data sucks. If your data's awesome then your data's awesome.

One final thing: as I've been following the story of the US-Right to Know's actions against biotech advocates, I've thought at many points in time "I'm so happy I'm in the private sector and don't have to deal with this. If I were one of those scientists, I'd probably just quit engaging with the public." And that's probably what the aim of these Freedom of Information requests is: to exhaust our public sector scientists to the point that they just collapse. A public sector scientist running a blog similar to mine would be way more effective because, in the public's perspective, private sector scientists are considered less ethical. So support public sector scientists, donate to their granting/funding agencies, and call out US-RTK in their efforts which are nothing short of a witch-hunt.


  1. Thank you for a great post that outlines this nicely. When consider the $6 million I have raised from public sources for research ($0 from monsanto), it is amazing that this is an issue.

    I have a good science communication outreach program. They contributed late last year to help me do more of it. You might notice that everything I've ever said is consistent with the literature, and is the same before and after they ever funded anything.

    Those wishing to contribute to my scicomm efforts should read about them carefully and contribute if they find them useful.

  2. Great article. As scientists, I think we are going to have to engage more with the public to illuminate how science funding operates. The general public is largely unaware of how science is funded and is under the general impression that any corporate funding (for research and non-research activities) is tantamount to paying scientists to make-up data. Cases like Coca-Cola's (secret) involvement with the Global Energy Balance Network. Coca-Cola provided millions $$$ to a research group to fund studies that promote that exercise has a higher impact on weight loss than diet, a point of view that is in direct contradiction to what the vast majority of what obesity research studies have found. Unfortunately, these types of problematic relationships shapes the view that the public holds about corporate-funded research.


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