Today, I find myself in Atlanta Georgia. I am attending the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s 2009 International Convention, representing the Biofortified blog, and I am also the Council for Biotechnology Information’s guest blogger. You can read about what I’ll be doing here at Biofortified, but first, how did I get here?
A few months ago, the Council for Biotechnology Information contacted me and invited me to be their guest blogger for the convention. They created a news blog to report on the agriculture-related talks and panels, and offered to cover my expenses to help them report on the conference.
I’ve never been to the BIO conventions, which host presentations on more than just ag biotech issues. It would also give me the chance to promote Biofortified, get exposed to the biotech zeitgeist, and meet some interesting people. I also saw a public benefit – I could help people learn about the things going on at this conference as I learn about them. So what’s the catch?
The Council for Biotechnology Information is an industry-funded nonprofit, dedicated to communicating science-based information about genetic engineering in agriculture. They do not engage in political lobbying, and as such have avoided most of the vitriol of the dirty politics that sometimes surrounds discussions about this technology. They maintain a useful news feed, and a list of experts who can be contacted if people have questions about genetic engineering. These experts are not paid to do this, it is strictly voluntary for those who want to take the time to do it as a public service. Pam Ronald recently joined their list of experts.
That all sounds good, except for one minor detail. Because the CBI is industry-funded, accepting their offer does present a potential conflict of interest. Would people still see me as an independent academic? Would I get dragged into some dirty politics as a consequence of going to the convention? Would this influence my opinion of genetic engineering subtly without my realizing it?
I thought about it for a few weeks, talked to former professors, fellow Biofortified bloggers, my lady-love, family, and of course my adviser. The conference spans a week and I’m busy with my research. Heck, the whole possibility rested on permission from my adviser, but I also wanted to hear what he thought about it. To paraphrase one key sentence of our discussion, he said that in general, in order to be a part of the discussion you have to go to the conferences.
Everyone gave me the green light, and I agreed to go, on the condition that I would be completely open with my readers. The CBI had no problem with that, and so we discussed the details of the trip. It sometimes happens that I over-think things, and this may be the case this time, although this has helped me think about choices like these down the road.
I will be writing articles for the CBI’s Agbiotech@BIO news blog about several talks and panel discussions. These articles will just report on what was discussed, peppered with a few quotes, with no opinion injected into it. I’m free to write my own opinions on my own blogs (and I will), but there are no expectations about it. Nevertheless, on those posts I will put a note at the bottom so that readers can take it into account.
I will also be doing a few video interviews with a Vado HD camera (about the size of an iPod and nowhere near as expensive), borrwed from the CBI. They are letting me use it for a year, and in return I will send them six short videos about plant genetics, GE crops, food, what-have-you. I was already making plans to do a few videos on my own this summer, but it would have been cumbersome to borrow a camera from campus whenever I want to shoot a scene. When I’m done with the camera I will return it.
Politics and conflicts of interest are funny things. On one hand, the slightest connection from an expert to an organization related to the topic at hand is cause for disbelieving everything they say. On the other hand, people joke about accepting gobs of money from Monsanto and maintaining editorial control to spite them. How shall we interpret my decision to go with the Super 8 Hotel rather than the expensive luxury suites suggested by the convention website? Trying to minimize my involvement, or trying to save them money? *Warning: unscientific mode on* Maybe it just feels better. *Unscientific mode off.*
Honestly, I should probably disclose that I also keep bees on an organic CSA farm outside Madison – as organic is currently politically opposed to genetic engineering. Anyone with connections to organic farms or businesses also has a potential conflict of interest. Whose side does that put me on? Maybe I’m not altogether on any side – because no one’s altogether on my side. (Present company excluded of course!)
I am sure that some people will treat this trip as a sure sign that I’m Sauron’s emissary or something. They already have – by the mere fact that my graduate school has accepted money from biotech companies – even though my education and research is USDA grant-funded! (Remember, biotech companies pay taxes, which build roads – if you drive on them you are part of the big conspiracy!) But the extremists are not the people whose opinions matter most because they are least likely to listen to rational arguments. What matters to me is that I maintain my rapport with my readers, myself, and the reasonable people out there who will consider the rationale behind arguments while also weighing who is saying them.
I am thankful that the CBI has given me this opportunity to go to the BIO Convention, something which few second-year grad students are able to do. I am excited to attend the interesting talks and panel discussions, especially one on Thursday entitled “Environment, Economy and Society: Plant Biotechnology’s Role in Advancing Sustainable Development.” I am committed to letting the facts and my values be my guides through the science and implications of biotechnology, as always, and I believe that my readers will be able to see this for themselves in what I write.
There remains perhaps one moral dilemma that I have not yet figured out. Will I Twitter? Somehow, it just seems wrong. The CBI folks are planning to twitter during the conference. What will I do when the phone gets passed around the circle to me? Will peer pressure break my resolve not to participate in the latest reduction of human thought into smaller nonsensical bites, and what will I say when this comes back to bite me?
“Yes, I Twittered, but I didn’t use l33t speak.”