Originally published: CBC News
The University of Saskatchewan and one of its well-known professors are acting like "sock puppets" for agri-business giant Monsanto, says a U.S. researcher.
Gary Ruskin of U.S. Right to Know has obtained thousands of pages documenting North American university ties to corporations involved in genetic engineering.
Ruskin recently shared with CBC News nearly 700 pages of U of S emails and other material. Ruskin said the documents show Monsanto has recruited a team of top academics in a "Machiavellian" effort to sway public opinion.
But a Saskatchewan professor featured in the documents says there's nothing inappropriate about his work with Monsanto. The U of S agrees.
Peter Phillips, a distinguished professor in the U of S Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, said no money ever changed hands, and academics are mandated by their universities and granting agencies to partner with industry and other groups.
"We don't do research in isolation," Phillips said. "Where appropriate, we have been fully transparent."
The documents show Monsanto coached Phillips on social media and public relations strategies. It also enlisted Phillips to help solve its problems with U.S. government agencies.
According to the documents, Monsanto edited U of S academic articles with no public mention of the corporation's role. As well, the documents indicate the company's executives oversaw the guest list and content of a U of S symposium.
Sept. 9, 2014 – An urgent request
Monsanto executive Eric Sachs emailed Phillips an "URGENT request."
Monsanto had commissioned academics from the U of S, Harvard University and other schools to pen articles in line with the corporation's views.
In the email, Sachs asked Phillips to review the proposed edits Sachs had made.
Sachs wanted to get the articles published quickly because of a negative report he expected soon from a U.S. scientific panel.
Sachs said Monsanto is working with the publisher and a public relations firm on a "merchandizing plan."
Phillips quickly replied, "Will do today."
The article is published with no mention of Monsanto's involvement.
Jan. 22, 2015 – Testifying before the National Academy of Sciences
A "high priority" email from Monsanto's St. Louis headquarters appeared in Phillips' inbox.
Camille Ryan, head of Monsanto's "social sciences" division, wrote about expert witnesses testifying before the prestigious National Academy of Sciences about genetically modified crops.
"Today, we heard from public sector breeders (very doom and gloom) and next week are the sociologists (not sure where that will go)," she said.
Ryan had a solution: Monsanto was "trying to push" the Academy to invite other witnesses.
"For the record, I am going to lobby for you as a presenter for this," she told Phillips. "Fingers crossed, we can get this through."
A month later, Phillips was invited to testify.
Before he did, Ryan sent him another email. She said Sachs and their "team" are willing to review his slide presentation.
"I would be pleased to discuss or receive any advice/input," Phillips replied.
Phillips testified shortly after this exchange.
Dec. 2, 2015 – Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know
The U of S Johnson Shoyama institute hosted the Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know.
Phillips served as point person at the U of S, but Monsanto officials oversaw the guest list. The event was sparked by Ruskin's requests for documents and the subsequent unwanted media attention.
Phillips wrote that many U.S. academics fear their emails being made public. They "have signalled they are changing their research communications channels."
The list of invitees has been redacted.
May 5, 2016 – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Phillips advised Monsanto on how to deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He explained the strategy, then said, "I think there is some chance to move the needle on regulation. Right now we are locked in."
(Click here for a summary of selected correspondence between Monsanto and Phillips.)
Ethically complicated field, says consultant
CBC News asked Saskatoon consultant Steven Lewis to review the documents. Lewis served a lead author of the widely-cited journal article, "Dancing with the Porcupine: rules for governing the university-industry relationship."
Lewis said Phillips is a credible academic in an ethically complicated field. Phillips said he didn't receive any direct payments from Monsanto, and Lewis said the professor appears to sincerely hold the beliefs he espouses publicly.
That said, Phillips seems all too willing to serve as "a bit of a cheerleader" for the industry, Lewis said.
"It stinks that he is co-creating propaganda with Monsanto, but he seems to do it because he wants to, not because they have bought him," Lewis said.
"I think most academic ethicists would be queasy about his tight relationship with Monsanto and his eagerness to do their bidding."
Profs should declare Monsanto connections: Ruskin
Ruskin, whose website lists the U.S. Organic Consumers Association and other groups as donors, said academic partnerships with outside groups are one thing. This goes much, much further.
Monsanto relies on these academics to spread their message to the public and to regulators, Ruskin said. Phillips and other professors should declare their Monsanto connections and stop helping corporations "hide their dirty laundry," Ruskin said.
"They gin up professors and academics as sock puppets to speak for them."
At its heart, this is about the public's right to know about "experts" speaking and writing about our food system, he said.
'I don't have to explain myself'
Phillips called Ruskin's accusations "innuendo." He said there is nothing interesting or out-of-the-ordinary in the emails.
Phillips, who has been applicant or investigator on $150 million worth of grants, said funding agencies now require academics to work with outside groups. That includes oversight of their research.
He said Monsanto controls 90 per cent of the market in certain aspects of agriculture, so it would be foolish for an academic not to have a relationship with them.
He said he's never taken payment from Monsanto, and stands behind any writing with his name on it.
Phillips said he partners with many companies and other groups, including the organic agriculture sector.
CBC asked Phillips to provide any emails or names to show comparable relationships to that of Monsanto. He declined.
"It's not my job to prove I'm innocent … I don't have to explain myself," Phillips said.
Monsanto stands by academic collaborations
Monsanto's senior media communications manager, Charla Lord, called CBC and questioned the relevance of the story. Citing her 25 years of work as a television reporter, she said it's tempting for journalists to be "spoon-fed" and "led down the wrong path" by interest groups.
She asked whether Ruskin and U.S. Right to Know was also being investigated. When asked to elaborate, she declined.
Lord later provided Monsanto's response by email.
"At Monsanto, we see public-private collaborations as essential to the advancement of science, innovation and agriculture … We fully stand by our professional relationships and collaborations …"
In an emailed statement, the U of S said it reviewed Phillips' work in the context of the university's research ethics policies. As a result, Phillips was "absolved of any wrongdoing."