Monday, November 16, 2015

Disclosure Statement on Industry Relations



This blog is an outlet for public engagement on several controversial topics, including climate change, crop biotechnology, pesticide use, and food-system sustainability.  Therefore, a disclosure statement seems appropriate.



Over five years ago, I accepted an invitation to present a seminar at Monsanto Headquarters in April, 2010.  I accepted the invitation after lengthy consultations with respected public-sector colleagues and with close friends.  I accepted it because I was advised by senior colleagues that having a better understanding of the world of agricultural industry would allow me to better serve the public in my role as a public scientist.  At the time, I agreed with that counsel, and I still do.



I was one of two plant pathologists asked by Monsanto scientists to speak on fungicide resistance.  Prior to our visit, my colleague (from another land-grant university) and I consulted with each other extensively in order to deliver a well-coordinated, joint educational presentation.  We presented our joint seminar and answered questions afterward.  All of the questions seemed appropriate to the topic and not unusual nor troublesome in any way.  During the one-day visit, we also discussed the disease-control properties of glyphosate (which is well-documented in the public record) and its implications.  I also recall a very brief discussion on plant physiology, but the details of that conversation escape me.



To my best recollection, at no time during that visit was there ever any discussion of any aspect of genetic engineering (=GE, =GMO), except for a single statement by a Monsanto scientist that Roundup Ready crops could safely be treated with glyphosate, a fact widely known at the time.  In 2010, I was four years away from pondering the possibility of offering outreach on GE crops.



Monsanto paid all travel expenses, which was my requirement.  The taxpayers should not have to fund a private visit to any corporate headquarters.  Monsanto offered me a personal $1,000 honorarium.  I did not want to create any perception of a conflict of interest.  However, I did not wish to waive the opportunity to bring funds to the University of Kentucky (UK) in support of our general missions of research, education, and public engagement.  Therefore, I requested of Monsanto that those funds be provided as a grant to UK instead of directly to me (which I can document upon request).  It would have been administratively much easier to have accepted the money personally and to have made an equivalent personal donation to UK.  In fact, I was even scolded by a mid-level administrator at UK for not doing so, because I had created a significant amount of administrative work for a small grant.  However, I insisted that there be no connection whatsoever between me and those funds.  What the funds were actually used for, I really don’t even know or recall.  I don’t have any recollection of using those funds for my own program.  Maybe I did, but I certainly don’t recall using them.  They may have been used by the college administration for general expenses.  As I said previously, I did not want to be associated with those funds, precisely because I didn’t want any perception whatsoever of corporate influence.



I have never received any income, honorarium, project funding, gifts, travel excursions, or any other material benefit for conducting research or providing outreach on genetically engineered crops.  Likewise, UK has never received any funding or any other material benefit for biotech-related research or outreach by me.  I have never held a patent (issued or pending) for any genetically engineered plant or product, nor held any investments relating to genetic engineering. 



My interactions with corporate interests on GE crops has been deliberately minimal.  The only interaction on this topic with Monsanto was described above.  I also briefly discussed the topic with a scientist from Syngenta, only sufficiently to inform him that I was involved in providing outreach on GE crops to the public.  On several instances, I have politely asking representatives from multinational corporations to please not discuss GE crops with me, in order for me to continue to claim complete freedom from any corporate influence on this topic. 



I conduct field evaluations annually of disease-control products (all of which are non-GMO) in turfgrass and corn, in recent years receiving $3,000-14,000 annually for such evaluations.  All results of these tests are published annually in Plant Disease Management Reports.  I test both synthetic fungicides and other more unconventional products, including biostimulants, fertilizers, biocontrol products, and organic materials that may influence disease development.  The funds obtained provide partial support of the cost of conducting these trials.  I selectively accept such requests for product evaluation because the data obtained are useful in formulating Extension programming for Kentucky citizens.  Furthermore, the funds help us conduct additional science-based pathology work in support of Extension programming for Kentuckians and beyond.  Even though the data obtained are valuable for Extension programming, I do believe that manufacturers should pay at least part of the cost of testing their products under Kentucky conditions.  Furthermore, I am unaware of any publically funded programs that would support product testing for plant disease control.  I do sometimes test products as “freebies” when I have a strong interest in some unusual material(s) that may hold promise for more sustainable disease control.  This is especially true for organic products.  In contrast to this, in the case of synthetic pesticides, I always require some degree of funding.  I decline to test large numbers of experimental synthetic compounds that may be years from commercialization, because my motivation is in testing products of importance to formulating sound educational programs, not in generating income for my program.  I don’t recall ever having received any product-testing funds from Monsanto in my 27 years as a professor at a land-grant university.  Maybe I did once, over two decades ago for one or two products to be tested on turfgrass in one season of testing, but I have no clear recollection of any such funding, nor can I find records of that in any of my computer files.



A recent conflict-of-interest statement is available in a file called coi_disclosure_GE_crops_Paul_Vincelli.



Though I work with commercial synthetic fungicides and with conventional farming systems, I also do research in organic farming systems.  For example, my only Ph.D. student did research entirely focused on disease control in organic crops (http://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_diss/225/).  I served on the graduate committee of another student working on disease control in organic crops, and I have visited organic farms as well as led student field trips to organic farms.  I regularly buy produce and meat from a local organic farm family, though I also buy from conventional growers regularly.



I have always maintained an open-door policy to all groups with an interest in the topics on which I offer Extension programming.  I have never failed to return a phone call or email from anyone or any organization.  Reach out (with courtesy, of course) and I will reach back!



In my 34 years working in agricultural science, I do not recall a single instance where any company representative requested that I withhold publication of any data or modify my professional judgement on anything in any way.  I do recall instances where company representatives and I have disagreed on some issue relating to their products, and we have always been able to discuss our professional differences with respect and dignity.



The financial advisor who manages my retirement funds is under instruction to make no investments in agriculture-related industries.  I do not accept gifts from commercial interests.  I have declined personal honoraria from non-profit, public educational institutions and groups, if the topic was in any way sensitive. 



I have a history of willingness to challenge multinational corporations from my position as a public scientist.  For example, see my presentation at http://www.apsnet.org/publications/webcasts/scientificpresentations/Pages/FungicidesandPhysiologicalBenefits.aspx.  Also please see the letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/regulating/headline-letter.pdf.  Another example: at one time, as I was reading the literature on RNAi (gene silencing), I became concerned about potential health concerns from RNAi technology in crops.  Because of this concern, I arranged for two seminars on the UK campus by Dr. Vicki Vance in March, 2015, in order to learn more on this topic and to seek expert reaction to her studies.  I am a tenured, full professor whose salary is 100% paid by the people of the United States.  I have no hesitation about taking on major corporations when scientific findings justify it.



As a normal part of my responsibilities as a professor at a land-grant university and as a Councilor-at-Large for the American Phytopathological Society, I interact with representatives of various industries, through email, phone calls, and face-to-face discussions at professional conferences or meetings of my professional society.



Feel free to contact me with any concerns.  



Update on 2 Dec 2015:
It is worth adding that my salary, office, lab, phone, internet access, staff support, etc., is provided by the taxpayers, not external funding sources.

Update on 17 Dec 2015: On two occasions I have communicated with a scientist from Simplot to better understand RNAi technology as applied to their product.  I anticipate similar interactions in the future with industry scientists, for the purpose of understanding the details of commercial applications of GE. 

Update on 4 Feb 2016:
This will likely be my last update in this thread, because disclosing mere communication with industry scientists, in the absence of any conflict of interest, seems unnecessary.  In instances where I have concerns about scientific aspects about a product (GE or not), it is important to hear the perspective of industry scientists, if for no other reason than they have studied substantial scientific literature relating to their product, and to not at least hear their comments seems closed-minded.  I also see value in arranging, on behalf of our graduate students, interactions with high-quality scientists who happen to be from industry.  These are important enrichment experiences for students, and such experiences never preclude our academic exploration of science-based risks of agricultural products and technologies.   

Update on 10 Aug 2016: This update does not relate to industry but to honoraria from non-profit, educational organizations, which I realized I wished to disclose.  In 2015, while lecturing at Shanghai University on various subjects including GE crops, my hosts unexpectedly provided a $1200 stipendAt the time, I was unaware that the stipend was standard for all lecturers and that is had been previously negotiated by the University of Kentucky Confucius Institute.  When I expressed hesitation, my hosts insisted that I accept it.  Since I was new to lecturing in China, I accepted it.  In 2016, while lecturing at Jilin University, my hosts there offered the same stipend.  However, I had decided in advance only to accept an amount that would cover my approximate estimate of my out-of-pocket costs.  Thus, I declined the full stipend, accepting $600 of the standard $1200 stipend.  This is documented in my public Dropbox folder at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ys0gsvqrn03cvld/AADephoD0TvKxqcJ_l18vO_ka?dl=0.  

Update on 12 Aug 2016:  I mentioned above declining $600 of an honorarium from a non-profit, educational organization.  I also have been offered a $1000 honorarium from a nonprofit organization for an invited paper I am preparing. I have indicated to that nonprofit organization that I wish for my honorarium to be directly donated to a charitable organization to be specified later.  I have received no offers of honoraria or any other funding from the commercial sector to lecture, to conduct research, or to provide outreach on GE cropsIf I do, I plan to decline, so that there is no conflict of interest of any sort with respect to GE crops.

Update on 16 Aug 2016
Regarding my challenging multinational corporations, I discovered two dead links above, so here are some links that were live as of today:
http://www.apsnet.org/meetings/meetingarchives/2009Annual/program/Pages/HotTopicSession.aspx
http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/fung-nemat/febuconazole-sulfur/pyraclostrobin/pyraclos_let_0209.pdf
 

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