Freedom of Information Request

About a year ago, I had a freedom of information request (FOIA) from Gary Ruskin with U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) asking for all my correspondence with a long list or organizations and people from Monsanto to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The request wasn't surprising given that I've written a lot about biotechnology, and it had been widely publicized that Ruskin's organization had issued FOIA requests to a large number of academics who'd written positive things about GMOs.

At the time, I chose not to post anything about the FOIA request largely because it wasn't much of a nuisance to me (but it was a cost to the Oklahoma tax payers who funded the lawyers and IT folks who pulled together the documents), and I didn't feel I had anything to hide.  Moreover, I generally support the ability of a free press to use FOIA, recognizing that it can become (and probably has become) abusive in some instances.  

However, last week, I ran across this post by the Berkeley economist David Zilberman who received a FOIA request from a journalist regarding his communications surrounding GMOs.  David's reaction to his request was similar to mine.   In particular, I wondered why Mr. Ruskin didn't just pick up the phone and call me?  I would have been happy to talk.  I was struck by the impersonal, legalistic approach.  Maybe Mr. Ruskin would have still wanted to issue a FOIA request after a chat, but at least we would have had a chance to share our perspectives, motivations, etc.    

Here is David's reaction:

Compliance with the FOIA of Mr. Carollo will take time and effort. It takes him a few minutes to write the request and it will take me much time and digging to respond. The right to request a FOIA is a privilege, and as a professional he needs to use carefully. In my view, he needed to put some time to learn about the subject of his inquiry before he presents his legal but costly demand.

Googling my name he could have easily discovered Were you paid by Monsanto? • The Berkeley Blog, where I state that I received $10,000 for reviewing some papers for Monsanto (out of millions of dollars of support grants for my research over the years from many sources). He would have known that I have made many contributions to support environmental causes. He could even have called or emailed me — my phone number (510-290-9515) and email ( are available on my website – and he would have better knowledge about his “suspect.” If after this initial and more personal investigation he would have asked me to provide him with information, I would have been happy to oblige according to the FOIA.

The last part is the best:

I am left with a feeling of disappointment in our culture of confrontation and lack of collegiality. I hope that journalists and in fact, all citizens, will realize that we in academia are dedicated to the truth as much as they are — and while there may be rotten apples in each profession, they should know us better before they burden us. In a way FOIA is like GMOs, a very valuable tool, which has to be applied with care.