Given the events of yesterday about corporate sponsorship in the objective landscape of science journalism, I found it ironic that my research collaboration meeting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill brought me to their beautiful FedEx Global Education Center where I enjoyed an iced pomegranate tea.
However, I was feeling badly about midday from a combination of the high temperatures and, more significantly, high ozone levels that gave me some respiratory problems from my longstanding asthma issues that preceded LungMutiny2010.
So, I took a nap and had a dream. I dreamt that I received an e-mail from ScienceBlogs management asking for blogger feedback on an idea to launch a corporate-sponsored blog that was written by food scientists and physicians who worked for a large, multinational food company. I dreamt that on a discussion forum an exceedingly explosive debate ensued between bloggers and SB management about the wisdom of doing so. Virtually unanimous agreement emerged that putting paid corporate information on the center page where we all create objective content was unacceptable and misleading to readers who trust us.
Well-known journalists, writers, and/or book authors who blog at SB warned management about critical issues regarding conflicts of interest in media and that basic tenets of journalistic ethics extend even to privately-held, online organizations – if they intend to be perceived as credible by the rest of the world. To ignore such principles would make SB and Seed the laughing stock of academic and corporate journalism.
Bloggers who helped launch SB argued that the hard-earned reputation they built at the network should not be open for pay-to-play by anyone, most of all a corporation that was already writing the blog at their own site.
Others argued about how a blog written by corporate representatives might differ or not from previous sponsored blogs where unaffiliated bloggers provided content. Some were just outright opposed because the company has a history of working too closely with a military government guilty of ethnic cleansing and other offenses. Others felt that every corporation has skeletons in their closet and that it is difficult to draw the line as to what money SB should or shouldn’t take. Some felt that we all use products from this company and that we are as complicit in their wrongdoings as our demand for petroleum is of BP’s debacle. SB management shared with bloggers the precarious nature of their financial situation and the need to take steps for continued viability. Some bloggers threatened to leave the network if the plans moved forward. Others were going to leave anyway because of a pre-existing condition of community erosion, late payments, and loss of transparency and communication.
But like the dream, the contentious and rancorous discussion didn’t happen before SB moved ahead and launched the corporate blog. Instead, these discussions played out in public and were followed by a confidential-to-bloggers, tin-eared missive from the boy-leader so heavily laden with corporate-speak that its leak was obviously anticipated. All of the discussion points and questions raised by Adam Bly in that letter could have been addressed in private conversations with the ScienceBlogs community in advance of the PepsiCo blog launch – a catastrophic folly that many of us first learned from Twitter, then from an official communication from ScienceBlogs two-and-a-half hours after the blog launched.
The condescending tone of his letter was an insult to the bloggers and demonstrated his lack of understanding of what he had done wrong.
Instead, it was left to departing and on-hiatus bloggers, as well as the rest of the world, to point out to ScienceBlogs management how fatally misguided this venture was.
The missed opportunity
When one goes to the PepsiCo page, one will see that use of their products is unavoidable. If you live in areas without access to a farmer’s market or you don’t have the income to buy healthier alternatives, you have even less choice. While I don’t consume soft drinks outside of an occasional locally-made Cheerwine, I hadn’t realized that PepsiCo makes some healthy products I use such as Naked Juice and Izze fruit juice based-sparkling waters. As a Coloradan, I enjoyed when Dave Taylor wrote this congratulatory post to Boulder-based Izze on their acquisition by Pepsi. And as a graduate of the University of Florida, it is unavoidable that I also use their Gatorade products out of reverence to the renal physiologist, the late Dr. J. Robert Cade, whose research in the 1960s with Florida Gators football players in “The Swamp” transformed professional and recreational sports.
As I debated my own long-term plans here and watched many beloved colleagues announce their departure from ScienceBlogs, I spoke a great deal with my wife, an internist and medical oncologist now expanding her training in a master’s in public health program and a preventive medicine residency. Her focus is nutrition policy in prevention of childhood obesity and diabetes. I thought initially that she would have a convulsion about the whole PepsiCo debacle.
But while she understood the ethical offenses and the objections to a lack of prior communication by ScienceBlogs and Seed with the bloggers, she actually expressed interest in knowing more about PepsiCo’s real motivations and science-based plans to be responsive to increasing governmental encroachment in the food industry.
Academic physician-scientists like her, and PhDs who conduct translational research, live in a different world than many of us academics. Her background is such that she has had to work in an ethically-valid manner with pharmaceutical companies in an academic medical center to provide cutting-edge care to the women with breast cancer she used to treat. Without institutionally- and professionally-acceptable relationships with drug companies, patient care would suffer – in the short term but not having access to experimental therapies and in the long run by not having access to drugs that emerged following clinical trials.
In her new career, she recognizes that to affect public nutrition policy, she will have to strike similar relationships with food companies and will be called upon to apply the same ethical, conflict-of-interest rubric to those relationships.
Again, complications aside, she asked me when else I’d have an opportunity to engage in a blog format with scientists, physicians, and other decision makers in the food industry. I doubt seriously that the PepsiCo blog was going to be any more than a PR stunt that latched its rasping scolex on the reputation built here by fellow bloggers.
But she asked me to assume for a moment that some ethically acceptable agreement had been reached that permitted a PepsiCo blog to be cordoned off at ScienceBlogs. Assuming that a PepsiCo blog would truly be interactive and not the press-release-disguised-as-blog like their own hosted version of Food Frontiers, we might actually have been able to learn what a multinational food company was really doing, scientifically, to modify foods to meet public demand (“don’t you dare take my salt from my crackers”) and minimize health risks to those who have no choice but to buy their products.
I routinely have a chance to interact with my colleagues in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries at my regional and national scientific conferences. But my wife aske me when else might my fellow bloggers and readers might have a chance to have a direct dialogue with people trained like us who now occupy high positions in a global food company – an organization whose influence on human health is much greater than any drug.
So I again looked at the biographies of the individuals who were purported to provide content here. Mehmood Khan, M.D., is an internist and endocrinologist who had recently directed a clinical trials unit on diabetes and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic and had been on the faculty the Department of Food, Sciences and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Assuming that he would personally write about the nutritional challenges in the food industry and not some ghost-authored promotional content, I actually would have been very interested to know what kind of science is being done to provide healthier foods.
Even in my post yesterday, I noted another proposed author, Dr. George Mensah, is a former CDC leader of cardiovascular disease risk who trained at Cornell and Washington University following undergraduate work at Harvard. Again, if his intention was truly to engage with scientific minds and not just spew some corporate lines, there might have been an opportunity to learn something from a highly-credentialed, former academic who was recruited to a major, global food company. This Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview with him on why he went corporate really piqued my interest in his scientific views.
Yes, yes – perhaps the engagement I might have anticipated would never have come. Even if these people were writing true science and public health, they would have been doing it as paid advertising masquerading under the ScienceBlogs brand.
The changes announced yesterday to make Food Frontiers more explicitly labeled as an “advertorial” are laughable and weak at best – another insult to the intelligence of both you and me that shows the lack of managerial self-awareness that continues to feed the blogger diaspora. Go to the page and tell me if you can see where it says “advertorial” – it’s like trying to spot the FDA disclaimer on a bottle of herbs.
I have been exceedingly proud to be picked in 2006 to write at ScienceBlogs in their second wave of bloggers. Virologist Vincent Racaniello asked yesterday on Twitter why anyone would want to have joined this network.
This would be my answer last week: I am an ambassador for my research field of natural products cancer pharmacology and saw in 2005 that most blog information of herbs and non-botanical supplements was misleading and written in a conspiratorial tone. Being invited to join ScienceBlogs gave me an international bully pulpit to combat misinformation about drugs derived from natural sources
Being here has brought a large number of relationships into my personal and professional life that I likely would not have had as a solo blogger on Blogspot. The ScienceBlogs frontpage and Last 24 Hours channel allows those coming with peripheral interests to stumble upon our content that might seem interesting. Being here also allows original news that one writes to be indexed by Google News, something that doesn’t happen with most individual blogs. As I’ve developed real professional interests in journalism over the last seven or eight years, I feel that being at ScienceBlogs has given me a level of credibility with RealJournalists™ and the ability to obtain press credentials that have allowed me, for example, to personally interview a recently-minted Nobel laureate.
Most of all, being here has given me the chance to know online and in-person some amazing people – writers, scientists, current and former academicians – who I would never have met in the myopic world of my local research institution.
Sadly, many of these people have left ScienceBlogs. To be frank, I am very angry that this community has been taken away from me by the lack of foresight by people who are paid to know better.
It did not have to be this way.
Transparency. Communication. Respect.
That gets you a long way in this world, no matter what you do.
As of the writing of this post, there has been no further communication from ScienceBlogs management to its bloggers.
The silence is deafening, especially when bloggers are being contacted with numerous other opportunities.
I’m still not sure that a PepsiCo blog could have been acceptably hosted anywhere here at ScienceBlogs. But had it been approached by seeking the professional expertise of bloggers and the tapping into community discussions that once existed at this network, we could have saved management from themselves.
You reap what you sow.
Update: Adam Bly announced at 10:27 EDT that Food Frontiers has been removed from ScienceBlogs. In his post at Page 3.14, he asks for input:
How do we empower top scientists working in industry to lead science-minded positive change within their organizations? How can a large and diverse online community made up of scientists and the science-minded public help? How do companies who seek genuine dialogue with this community engage? We’ll open this challenge up to everyone on SB and beyond in the coming days so that we can all find the right solution.
If you’re still reading, I encourage you to add your two cents below or over there.