Thursday, June 20, 2019

Bayer consultant and spouse abuser: Why University of Florida researcher Kevin Folta is not a good choice for "science communicator"

Kevin Folta of the University of Florida
Recently I have written at length about Kevin Folta, former chair of the University of Florida horticultural sciences department. Folta is of great interest to many science journalists, and to environmental activists as well, because in recent years he has become the poster boy for conflicts of interest in science--a dubious claim to fame that has led to him being featured in the New York Times among other publications.

In response to the revelations about his $600/hour consulting for Bayer--at the same time as he posed as a neutral scientific arbiter on the safety of Bayer's products, from glyphosate to GMOs--Folta has told anyone who would listen that this cannot be a conflict of interest because it supposedly did not affect his scientific judgement. In other words, Folta has abused the confidence of his followers and other members of the public, and essentially gaslighted them about basic understanding in the scientific community of the need to avoid conflicts of interest and engage in full transparency. As I wrote in the previous commentary, this is a real disservice to the public understanding of science and an assault on scientific integrity itself, in the interests of his personal gain.

I and others have also reported allegations that Folta abused his wife during their marriage (they are now divorced.) In the previous report, I quoted at length from a letter written by the director of a women's community attesting to that abuse, including an incident in which Folta kicked his wife in a brutal and unprovoked fashion. (To protect her privacy and spare her further pain, I will just refer to to her as "R" in this post. However, some of the details of this incident and related matters were published by GMWatch last year.)

In response to my last post, Folta, on Twitter, asked me if journalists had stopped using the word "allegedly." I pointed out to him that I did not use that word if I believed that allegations are fully confirmed (and added that the word "allegedly" is most often something that lawyers require reporters and publications to use, even when it suggests there is doubt that does not actually exist.)

One reason I knew that the word "allegedly" was not necessary is that in addition to the letter referred to above, I was in possession of two other letters by witnesses to Folta's abuse of his ex-wife. I am now authorized to quote from those, and I will do so, but without identifying the individuals who wrote them.

The first letter describes an incident in 2009.

The writer was visiting Folta and R. at their home in Gainesville. Folta was planning to leave on a work-related trip. R. was suspicious about Folta's relationship with a female South American student, and so asked Folta who was traveling with him. While Folta was in another room, R. looked through the phone and text messages on his phone. According to the letter writer, she "discovered a text in which Kevin addressed the South American female student. Kevin advised that she and her girlfriend get a room next to his because they were going to 'party like rock stars.'"

"[R] then proceeded to the bedroom to confront Kevin. I went to the guest bedroom that is on the other side of the house. The next morning, [R] showed me a bruise on her arm and a bump on her head. She told me Kevin was trying to take the phone away from her and they wrestled to the floor where her head was bumped and her arm twisted behind her back until she released the phone."

The second letter describes an incident in 2012 that is particularly troubling.

This letter was written in March 2018. I am quoting it in full to make the meaning clear.

"To Whom it may concern,
I met Kevin Folta and [R] through the Gainesville Cycling Club in 2012. Over the years my friendship, more specifically with [R], grew to the point where we became the best of friends.

Several years back (I do not remember exactly when) in the late evening (somewhere between 11:00 p.m. and midnight) I received a call from [R]. She stated that Kevin had arrived home very drunk and was being quite belligerent. She also stated that she was hiding in some bushes out front of her house as she feared for her life. Because [R] had confided in me previously about an instance where Kevin, after a serious argument with [R], aggressively banged pans over her head while she slept, I suggested she call the police. However, [R] said he would get tired looking for her and soon fall asleep.

Some time later [R] shared just how she ended up in the bushes. She told me that Kevin was extremely aggressive that evening and because she feared for her life she attempted to get in [the] car and leave. Kevin prevented her by repeatedly closing the garage door. Eventually, [R] stated that she ran out under the garage door as it was closing and hid in the bushes out front of the house.

Over our years of friendship I received several similar calls from [R] in which she stated that Kevin had arrived home intoxicated and was seeking to engage in an argument with her. She told me she had come to realize that not responding to his accusations was her best course of action."

                                                                          * * *

It gives me no pleasure to have to quote from these letters, which portray seriously abusive actions on Folta's part. But as a #MeToo reporter in addition to the other hats I wear, I believe that these incidents, along with abundant evidence that Folta has lied repeatedly about his industry connections, raise very serious questions about whether he is an appropriate spokesperson for science in general and the University of Florida in particular. If you re-read the previous post, you will find abundant additional evidence to support this concern.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Bullying and other misconduct in Australian archaeology: The community begins to speak out.

(I have received this letter today from Lynley Wallis, one of Australia's leading archaeologists, on behalf of the National Executive Committee of the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists Inc. It demonstrates that once the door is opened to rooting out abuse and misconduct, a lot of people will step through it. The letter details the results of a survey of an online, nationwide survey which found that some 87% of respondents answers "yes" when asked if they had experienced bullying in the course of their work as archaeologists. More people are in touch every day about these issues.)

Dear Michael

I am writing to you in my capacity as the current Membership Secretary, former Vice-President and former President of the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists Inc. (AACAI – see In these roles I have held a position on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of AACAI for the past five years. I have discussed the content of this letter with the current AACAI President and Secretary (Andrew Costello and Robyn Jenkins, respectively). President Costello has approved my making contact with you and has granted me permission to relay the following information to you on behalf of the NEC.

AACAI is the peak professional body for archaeologists working in consulting-based archaeology in Australia. We have a membership of approximately 150 who work predominantly in consulting, although many of our members hold PhDs and retain close relationships with their former or other academic institutions where they often continue to give guest seminars/teach into topics/supervise students etc (note that it is not compulsory for consulting archaeologists to join AACAI to work professionally in Australia). As you might imagine given our smaller population, Australian archaeology is a far smaller field than is archaeology in the US, and thus we almost all know each other, at least indirectly if not directly.

We are aware that you have launched an investigation into bullying in Australian archaeology and as the peak body in Australian consulting archaeology we welcome this scrutiny. Many of our members have complained in recent years that bullying is a major concern to them and the AACAI NEC has been working to address this issue through various mechanisms. As part of our efforts, in 2018 AACAI ran an online, nation-wide survey to gather data regarding the prevalence of bullying in our industry. Of 126 respondents to our survey, 110 (87.3%) answered “yes” to the question “Have you experienced bullying in the course of your work?”. When asked “Do you think that there is a bullying issues [sic] in the archaeology industry in Australia?”, 108 of 125 respondents (representing 86.4%) answered “yes”. Our respondents were a mix of very junior consultants (ie recent graduates) through to extremely experienced consultants (including ~20% with more than 20 years’ experience), and were approximately two-thirds female and one-third male. These results are alarming and support your assertions that Australian archaeology has a very serious problem in regards to bullying.

We hope that the above information may be of some value to you and, if so, we approve your publishing it if you see value in doing so. If required, the appropriate source to be cited for the survey results is “AACAI NEC 2018 Unpublished data from National Survey into Bullying and Harassment”.

If we can be of further assistance to you please do not hesitate to get back in touch with us.

We wish you the best of luck in your investigations and in doing so helping address this serious issue facing our industry, peers and colleagues.

Kind regards
Dr Lynley Wallis

Update June 14: Since my original blog post about the situation in Australia, it has received close to 7000 page views. This seems a measure of the level of interest in that country and elsewhere.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Bullying, harassment, #MeTooSTEM in Australian archaeology and anthropology: An ongoing investigation [[Updated]]

Alan Cooper, U of Adelaide
I'm reproducing here a Facebook post which sums up recent investigations of bullying, harassment, and other issues in Australian archaeology and anthropology. This will be updated as the investigations continue. One important update as of June 13: A letter from the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists about the importance of investigating these issues.

Some colleagues here may have noticed that I have been Tweeting quite a bit about my investigations into accusations of bullying, harassment, and unethical handling of indigenous remains concerning ancient DNA expert Alan Cooper at U of Adelaide and archaeologist Michael Westaway (now at U of Queensland.) I began going public on this when a significant number of sources had related their experiences about both men and there was no longer any doubt that the allegations had merit. New people are approaching me every day and the universities involved are fully aware. A lot of colleagues in Australia, ranging from junior to very senior archaeologists and anthropologists, are getting involved behind the scenes because they see this as a chance to finally make a dent in the very rigid, macho culture of Australian archaeology. If anyone here has any experiences to share, please get in touch with me privately.
I should mention that both of these investigations began when Australian colleagues approached me privately and asked me to look into it. Many people have just had enough of bad behavior by now. As one former member of Cooper's lab wrote to me:
"...I have witnessed at close quarters the devastating and lasting impact that he has had on friends and colleagues over a period of years. Maybe there are gendered aspects to this that I am not aware of, but my experience of Alan is that he is an equal-opportunity bully who mistreats men and women alike."

Update June 11: Since I first posted this, an increasing number of new sources, witnesses, and victims of this bad behavior by both Cooper and Westaway have contacted me. I hope to be able to prepare a more comprehensive report in the next couple of weeks. I should point out that I have talked to several colleagues who have a hard time believing the worst about both Cooper and Westaway, because both men are capable of being quite charming and appearing sensitive in certain situations, for example out in the field. But to their own students and colleagues at their home institutions, both men are reportedly capable of terrible bullying and other misconduct. That is often the way with bullies and harassers.

Comment from Professor Paul Harvey, former chair of University of Oxford zoology department:

Alan Cooper was forced to resign from Oxford after accusations of irregularities on a grant application, at least that was what was reported at the time (2005)--there may have been other factors as well which I am looking into. Paul Harvey was head of the department at that time. He has agreed to make the following comment:

“Alan forged data (and my signature as Head of Department) in a grant application and lied. His group came to me with a catalogue of irrefutable evidence.  I forwarded it all to the University and they took over the investigation.  Alan left for Adelaide under a cloud.”

Further update and a question, raised today on Twitter: Did Alan Cooper falsify a grant application in Adelaide?

See the Tweets below. As one witness describes the scene:

"Alan Cooper's gleeful words when he heard that Jeremy Austin got his ARC Future Fellowship: 'I can't believe we got away with it!'"
Michael Westaway, U of Queensland

Friday, June 7, 2019

Lying about industry ties, gaslighting his followers, abusing his wife: Why the facts about University of Florida scientist Kevin Folta are important and his financial information is relevant [[Updated]]

Over the past 24 hours a group of us have had yet another fierce Twitter exchange with University of Florida researcher and self-proclaimed "science communicator" Kevin Folta. To make it easier for everyone, especially Folta's followers and supporters, to understand why I have published documents detailing his financial ties to industry, I have assembled some of the most important materials on Folta in one place. Sadly, Folta, no doubt at one time a talented scientist, has become widely known as the poster boy for conflicts of interest in science, even among those researchers who otherwise agree with his enthusiastic embrace of modern biotech methodologies and the use of GMOs in agriculture.

To be clear, Folta has a perfect right to advocate for biotech, GMOs, and anything else he wants to support. But he does not have a right to hide his real and potential conflicts of interest; transparency about them is key to evaluating the validity of his arguments.

--A 2015 New York Times story by Eric Lipton detailing Folta's lack of transparency about his ties to industry, especially Monsanto. Folta sued the Times and Lipton for defamation but lost the case.

--Folta was forced to step down as department chair of UF's horticulture department in the wake of allegations by his now ex-wife that he abused her.

--Folta lied repeatedly to critics, colleagues, and on social media about his $600/hour consulting for Bayer; he ended up being outed by some of his former allies in the biotech world for his conflicts of interest and for his dishonesty about them.

--After being outed for lying about his consulting for Bayer by biotech colleagues, he continued to lie, making it necessary for me to publish documents proving it beyond any doubt.

--To provide a fuller picture of Folta's financial entanglements with industry, I have begun publishing on Twitter details about his stock holdings in Bayer (Roundup and GMOs), Altria Group (tobacco), the former DowDuPont (pesticides), and other companies whose products and activities Folta pretends to be an impartial scientific arbiter of.

--For a scientific view on why full disclosure of even potential conflicts of interest is so important to the integrity of science and medicine, see this open access letter by Naomi Oreskes et al. This is particularly relevant to Folta's gaslighting of his followers about conflicts of interest. On social media, in response to the criticisms, he has challenged critics--including myself--to detail how his association with industry has affected the conclusions of his research or his public statements, and demanded to know what is factually wrong about them. But the so-called "funding effect" on research, which Oreskes et al. describe in detail, is very well understood among researchers. By attempting to mislead both followers and critics alike about such a bedrock principle of scientific integrity, Folta is damaging the reputation of science to suit his own self interests (which include a great deal of money that has gone into his own pockets.) As Oreskes et al. put it:

"Scientists whose funding sources have been questioned have
sometimes asserted that their analysis was not influenced by the
source of their funding. The problem is that they have no way
to know that, and neither do those who rely on their results."

--Many additional details can be found in this roundup of Folta facts by U.S. Right to Know, and a 2015 BuzzFeed story about how Folta uses alter egos to push industry positions on scientific topics.

Folta claims that his critics have a vendetta against him because they are against science and so attack him for being a "science communicator." The truth is that Folta's conflicts of interest and lack of transparency about them--to the point of wholesale lies when he is caught out--have played an important role in the erosion in public trust of science over the years. When the public sees that a publicly funded researcher is basically bought and paid for by industry, and endorses the safety of products made by companies that are secretly paying him huge amounts of money, the understandable result is cynicism about science.

Update on the spousal abuse allegations:

As I mention above, Folta's ex-wife publicly accused him of abusing her around the time they were going through their divorce. As evidence, she produced a letter written in May 2018 by the director of a women's shelter who had been a friend both of Folta and his ex. Excerpts of the letter have been published previously, but I have been given permission to excerpt from it here. I want to do that with a very specific incident that the shelter director witnessed first hand in her home, where Folta and his ex-wife were overnight guests. I have redacted it to protect the identities of everyone except Folta.

Kevin and [his ex] had started a tradition of coming to visit us each New Year. We welcomed them into a group of our friends in Wisconsin who celebrate together every year. On this occasion, it was fairly late at night. We...were in our living room talking. [Folta's ex] was sitting in a chair opposite me in the room, she had her laptop in her lap and she was answering emails, though still engaging in conversation we were all having. Kevin was talking about something and didn’t like that [his ex] was looking at her computer. He walked over to where she was seated with her foot hanging over the arm of the chair and he kicked her. There were two things that concerned me in addition to him kicking someone in my house. 1) the look of anger that was on his face and 2) her lack of reaction to this explosion. She responded as if it was no big deal which concerned me that this has happened to her before. She looked at Kevin and sheepishly replied “geez”. He yelled, “I was trying to tell you something and you aren’t listening!” He then stormed into the kitchen where she followed and I heard her apologizing to him and him just saying “you should listen to me when I’m trying to tell you something important”. Shortly after, [Folta's ex] went to bed. I asked [my husband] if he was going to talk to him or if I was. [He] wasn’t sure what to do. Kevin came in the room as if nothing happened and starting joking around with [her husband]. I decided to go to bed and address it in the morning.

I got up early as I knew Kevin would be up early on his computer. I told him that if he ever brought violence into my house again he would never be welcome. He tried to tell me he was just joking around and I said “don’t insult my intelligence; I saw the look on your face”. I advised that he needed to get some help. He offered the usual excuses of being so stressed out and he just needs sleep and he was sorry. I offered some sympathy, but reiterated that he needed to get help and that he better never be violent again.