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Since July, controversy has surrounded the plant scientist Kevin Folta. As usual, it focused on issues surrounding the fraught subject rather than on the science itself. It was shaping up to be an important cautionary tale. But then things took an unusual turn.
In mid-October, BuzzFeed published a profile of Folta by Brooke Borel which focused on a podcast called The Vern Blazek Power Hour. Folta was revealed to be the lispy host who had interviewed people about biotechnology, including, rather bizarrely, himself.
Borel’s story is engaging and deeply researched, but it made me uncomfortable. At its heart the story is not about industry promotion, but a researcher communicating about science being scrutinized to an extreme degree.
Critical journalism plays a fundamental role in holding science to account, and Borel was miles within the norms of journalism and was scrupulous with facts. But unlike the clear public interest angle of the New York Times article, which focused on companies coopting academics, I found it hard to find a clear public interest angle in the BuzzFeed profile.
Borel’s story is an intelligent read that muses on unconscious bias and the misunderstanding of public perception. But scrutinizing scientists in public for their communications activities, however strange, gambles with the willingness of scientists to communicate.
Scientists are withdrawing from the public conversation about GMOs. I fear that the embarrassment of a poster boy for science communicators will hasten the process, and those who step back will be those with less hardened positions on the GMO spectrum.
If the hardened advocates are the only scientific voices left, the quality of public conversation about GMOs will keep going downhill.
Read full, original post: We need to talk about Kevin